Twenty years ago, complex progressive metal was just finding its niche in the music industry. On their 1989 debut, When Dream and Day Unite, Dream Theater essentially combined Metallica with prog rock, and thus they set a template that’s been copied countless times. Naturally the genre has become a bit stale and unoriginal lately, but there are some new bands looking to breathe fresh air into it. District 97 accomplishes this wonderfully on their debut, Hybrid Child.
Touting themselves as “the only Progressive Rock band in the world to feature an American Idol finalist and a Chicago Symphony Orchestra virtuoso cellist,” District 97 formed in Chicago a few years ago. The aforementioned uniqueness comes in the form of singer Leslie Hunt (who mixes the power of Ann Wilson with the charm of Gwen Stefani) and cellist Katinka Kleijn. They describe Hybrid Child as a combination of “Meshuggah-inspired metal, the epic majesty of Yes, and the melodicism of the Beatles,” and while the last claim may be quite a stretch (their songwriting is nowhere near that good yet), District 97 incorporate more pop sensibility and better dynamics than many of their contemporaries.
Hybrid Child opens with the flawed but still awesome “I Don’t Want To Wait Another Day.” The flaw of the song is a major one; Hunt’s vocals are extremely repetitive. She says “I don’t want to wait” over and over. That’s about it, and in terms of songwriting, it’s pretty bad. Structurally and musically, though, the song is fantastic. Every time she does say this verse, there are alterations in the accompaniment, be it a cello line or a keyboard solo. And her harmonies are good. Surprisingly, an entirely different song begins in the middle of the track, and that right there is the innovation this genre needs. The last minute of the track returns to where it began.
“I Can’t Take You with Me” is filled with odd time signatures, stellar dynamics and punk attitude. Here Hunt’s vocals are quite impressive because, besides their high quality, her melody follows the exact same scale as the music, moving up and down the octave with the instruments. The song constantly shifts from complex keyboard and guitar work to mellow cello and vocal lines. A more adventurous style appears in “The Man Who Knows Your Name,” which, with a timbre straight from Keith Emerson and more focus on riffs, is heavier overall. At almost ten minutes long, it’s deceptively an instrumental for its first half (which is another interesting choice). Eventually Hunt chimes in with more multitracked vocals and it’s engaging, as is the futuristic, spacey aesthetic District 97 fancies.
The most complex track on Hybrid Child is “Termites.” It changes its rhythms constantly, and Hunt, even more intricately than she did on “I Can’t Take…,” follows along. Usually prog bands will leave the tricky stuff to the music and then return to simpler forms for the vocal sections, but not District 97, and it’s very effective. There is a moment where she screams that is so sudden and unexpected, it’s slightly humorous, but it adds an extra layer of personality in an instant (and luckily she doesn’t make it a habit; she’s too good of a singer to resort to that).
Hybrid Child closes, in typical progressive metal ambition (or pretension depending on how you look at it), with a ten part, twenty-seven minute suite entitled “Mindscan.” The first three sections are instrumental and include a great piano focused prologue and complicated metal freak out that lodges itself in your memory. The sections with Hunt are excellent too, especially “Mindscan IX: When I Awake.” Logically, the piece reprises sections it began with at the end, which brings it full circle, and it has an epic quality which results from movements that flow as smoothly as colors in a rainbow.
District 97 may only have a few years under their belt, but with this debut, they’ve crafted an album that revitalizes the genre, plain and simple. It’s more original, refreshing and catchy than you’d expect, and contemporaries of past, present and future could learn a few things from Hybrid Child. District 97 packs their album with the standard technical music, don’t get me wrong, but they also allow their songs to blossom melodically and range between vast levels of intensity. There are certainly better prog metal albums out there, and District 97 needs to develop deeper songwriting (good melodies and good songwriting are two different things, after all), but the genre hasn’t felt this fresh in many years.