06 October 2010

CD REVIEW: District 97 - Hybrid Child (2010, Laser's Edge)

There is a word, perhaps the worst word that can ever be uttered with respect to a prog band.

It is worse than being called a clone.  Far worse than being labeled derivative.  And compared to being called twee?  It’s in another league entirely.

That word, Constant Readers, is hype.

It’s OK.  I’ll wait till the tremors die down.


All good now?

Hype is something most prog music fans seem to greet more with disdain or outright fear than with open, welcoming arms.  Hype happens at all levels of progdom, from a new release from a classic era band being called ‘their best since (insert epoch-defining album title here)’ to a new band’s debut release being elevated pre-release to the pantheon of greats.  I’ve learned to tune hype out, usually ignoring it entirely.  At my worst, however, I see a hyped band or album and actively stay away from it, because there’s no way the band can live up to the hype.  Not ever.

This has been a very long lead-in for a review of an album that has been getting hype for months now, District 97’s debut release Hybrid Child.  It’s out now on Laser’s Edge Records, home to a load of bands I have loved.

Now, for some of you, hearing me talk about hype may seem disingenuous.  After all, I run a blog, I post news articles about new and forthcoming releases all the time (like the posts I’ve done with D97 videos).  I do interviews (like the one I did with D97 drummer Jonathan Schang).  In some ways, I am a cog in the hype machine.  I understand this.  It doesn’t mean that I like it all the time, and I do try to balance things out so things aren’t that overly hype based and more grounded on what is really going on, rather than grandiose claims that will never be fulfilled.

The question that now arises, of course, and I can hear you asking this, is this…does Hybrid Child live up to the hype?

Let’s take a closer look and see.

Here are the basic facts: District 97 is a 6-piece band, musically a mix of progressive metal, fusion and some serious pop sensibilities.  Their music can range from thrashy metal to lush symphonic progressive rock, often in the course of the same song.  Hooks and melodies abound…these aren’t just intricate bits of music with all flash and no substance…of course, having said this, there’s lots of sections showcasing some serious musical chops.  Add in a cellist who plays for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and a singer who appeared on American Idol, and…it’s a pretty interesting and heady mixture.

Of course, those last two elements are the ones getting most of the attention.  Everyone I know who is familiar with the band starts off with the fact that vocalist Leslie Hunt was on American Idol, and that cellist Katrinka Kleijn plays with the CSO, like these are carefully chosen things to try and build more attention and, well, hype.  If neither of them could pull their weight, I’d give credence to this viewpoint.  The fact is, both of them pull their own weight and then some.  It is very interesting to hear cello used so prominently in this kind of music, and more interesting still that it’s not played the way one might expect.  There aren’t a lot of long, sorrowful, mournful lines being offered up…a lot of time it almost seems Kleijn plays her cello like an oversized violin, with plenty of fleet fingered, skipping lines and solos that sound so much not at all like what we expect a cello to sound like.

Then there’s Leslie Hunt.  Let’s face it, her voice is again not what we expect in progressive rock.  She brings a lot of pop sensibility and delivery to her vocals, and it’s something that’s unfamiliar.  Thankfully her vocalisation is not filled with faux soul or loads of melisma and forced inflection.  Her voice shows range and flexibility as well…at times crystal clear and innocent, other times a touch harsher and more world wise.  It’s a fine voice, and one that should continue to grow with time and development.

This is not to say the rest of the band is not worth mentioning.  Jonathan Schang is a hell of a drummer, chops to spare and the ability to unleash when necessary, or hold back when it suits the song.  Jim Tashjian is a beast of a guitarist, and I can’t praise his playing enough.  Nor can I say enough good things about Rob Clearfield’s keybaord chops.  At times his playing has a nice Jobson-in-UK-esque feel to it, and that plays into some of his patch choices as well.  He also plays a mean baritone guitar too.  Finally, when I can hear him, Patrick Mulchay’s bass playing is lyrical, warm and spot on.  His solos are great, and when he is mixed up, his playing is revelatory, and such a huge part of the songs.  At times I think there’s a bit of difficulty for me to differentiate some of the lower cello work from his bass playing, as they sometimes sit in similar register, but when separated…both benefit from the other.

Hybrid Child to me feels almost like two separate EP’s welded together in the middle.  The first half of the album consists of 4 mid-length songs (6 to 9 minutes in length), mostly vocally oriented.  The second half of the release is a single 27-minute, 10-part suite with an overarching title of ‘Mindscan.’  Interestingly enough, both halves work well together; there’s no weakness resulting from the disparity of these two very different sections.  The first half opens up with the propulsive and energetic ‘Don’t Wanna Wait Another Day,’ filled to the brim with some amazing cello riffs and lines and powerful vocals.  Immediately one is struck by the vocal delivery, which, with its reliance on mannerisms more at home in contemporary pop and rock music, seems to be unlike anything heard in prog to date.  There’s no worry about confusing Leslie Hunt with female prog singers from the past, and it almost seems like a statement of intent in a lot of ways.  I like the shift to the spacier, quieter section part way through, which allows for a short breather before picking back up full speed again.  It’s a powerful opening track, showing a lot of modern sensibilities and influences.

Up next is a track most people here should be familiar with, as it was the lead single released several months back.  ‘Can’t Take You With Me’ verges on overplayed for me, which sounds weird, but considering how much I’ve heard of it over the past few months waiting for the album to show up, you’d understand why.  The album version adds two more minutes of instrumental workout to this tightly composed, poppy tune, with a load of UK-like influences winding their way through things.  Yes, I do consider this their UK piece, and I can’t help it.  Still, it’s an enjoyable number…it was catchy enough that the video that looped at NEARfest 2010 interested me in finding out more.  I’d like to hear this one played live, to see if the band stretches it out any more…but as enjoyable a song as it is, I probably need a break from it.  At least short term.

‘The Man Who Knows Your Name’ is another song that relies on disparity in styles and shifts in tone.  The opening riff is pretty relentless, with powerful drum/bass interlocked sections and a nice, but not quite heavy enough guitar riff over top.  Had they pumped up things just a bit, I’d be headbanging away.  But then keyboards kick in, we hit more fusiony realms, and the heaviness feels boosted just a bit by the solo atop it.  Vocal sections again enter dreamier realms, and the shifts are organic and smooth.  Kleijn offers up a few tasty cello solos, Schang’s drumming is tight and punchy, and Tashjian’s guitar work is fluid…heavy where required, lyrical as needed.  The longest of the tracks on the first half of the album at 8:49, it allows for a decent bit of stretching out instrumentally.  It also sets up the very heavy, very thrashy, and surprising ‘Termites,’ which closes out what I’d think of as ‘Side A’ of this debut record.  If you told me that Leslie Hunt co-wrote the song, I’d have given you a weird look, but she did.  A series of surreal scenes set to some blistering thrash metal, it’s a surprising track that sounds like nothing else on the album.  Of course, the fact that there’s very little keyboard playing here helps that…Clearfield instead picks up a baritone guitar and happily flails away with the rest of the band.  It’s not quite tech/thrash, but I’ll be damned if it’s not something I keep repeating because it’s really flipping cool.

Hybrid Child closes out in a grandiose manner, with the 10-part, 27-minute epic ‘Mindscan.’  Now, while I was bad and listened to ‘Can’t Take You With Me’ about 5 zillion times leading up to the release of this album, I did not listen to any of ‘Mindscan’ before getting the CD, even though the entire epic is up on Youtube in live concert versions.  Thus, I had no idea what it was I was getting into.  Knowing what I know from the interview I did with D97 drummer Jonathan Schang a few months back, I knew that the band started out as an instrumental group a la Liquid Tension Experiement, and I had images of a track similar to LTE’s ‘Three Minute Warning’…a.k.a., a massive instrumental filled chock a block with loads of unison lines, intense instrumental workouts, and not necessarily tight songwriting or hooks.

I shouldn’t have feared.

This 10-part epic has plenty of vocal sections scattered amongst the instrumental movements, and there’s plenty of variety to be had.  Some of the lushest, most symphonic moments on this album are held on this track, as well as some of the more intense instrumental bits as well.  Yes, it’s a bit of everything plus the kitchen sink…oh, and some closets and a table as well…kind of song, but it works very well.  Is it perhaps a bit overlong at 27:36?  Maybe.  Don’t ask me what to edit out though, because I couldn’t tell you.  I can say that I love the space-like, almost Floydian opening movement ‘Arrival,’ the lovely use of piano and cello on ‘Entrance,’ and the heavier take on things in ‘Realisation.’  ‘Welcome,’ the first vocal section, is almost Dream Theater like, reminding me somehow of some of the sections of ‘Octavarium,’ while ‘Examination’ is strange, with ambient sounds, weird glitch like parts, and copious quantities of WTF abounding.  The lyrics to ‘Hybrid Child’ remind me of Genesis’ Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, while the use of piano and gentle, gradual builds is well executed.  ‘Exploration’ and ‘What Do They Want’ are really two of a kind, based around the same riffs and instrumental parts, with the first being instrumental, the second adding in some very nice vocal parts setting off the heavier instrumental backing.  There’s a lot of vocal doubling and harmony on display here, really adding a nice extra bit of colour to things.  ‘When I Awake’ gives us out last vocal performance of the album, set against some heavier symphonic rock.  I’d love to hear some extended works from the band in this style…it’s a different feel entirely, and one they seem to excel at.  Finally, ‘Returning Home’ closes out the epic and the album with a shifting instrumental…fast and powerful to start, ambient and spacey to close out. The shift is smooth and effortless, and the final fade, with a pulsing synth and cello unison, is lovely and so very, very prog.

We’re reaching the end of the review, and this is the point where I try to wrap things up in a few pithy, piquant lines that (hopefully) either inspire you to go out and buy the album, or warn you to stay away like it has the plague (really though, that doesn’t happen all that often).  This time, I think we also need to answer the question of whether Hybrid Child lives up to the hype. 

Does it?

I think, for the most part, that it does.  It’s contemporary yet has an eye looking to the past just enough to allow the material to resonate with listeners who really enjoy the older symphonic style.  It is as heavy as it is lush, and the frequent presence of cello is a nice touch indeed.  I think people used to a more classical vocal delivery may find Leslie Hunt’s vocals an unusual taste at first, but it’s one that can be acquired very easily.  And hell, you have to give her credit…she was on American Idol, and could have tried for a pop career, and said ‘I want to sing this!  I need to be in this band!’  This isn’t a ploy to try and sell records, not some cheap trick.  This is the real deal, and it shows on every song. 

I think District 97 is a band that can have a long future ahead of them.  And I think this is an album that merits a purchase and repeated listens, whether you dig the heavier side of prog or not.  Hopefully they’ll be around for a while…I’d like to hear what they come up with next.

Track Listing
Don’t Wanna Wait Another Day
Can’t Take You With Me
The Man Who Knows Your Name

I. Arrival
II. Entrance
III. Realization
IV. Welcome
V. Examination
VI. Hybrid Child
VII. Exploration
VIII. What Do They Want
IX. When I Awake
X. Returning Home

Leslie Hunt: vocals
Katinka Kleijn: cello
Rob Clearfield: keyboards, baritone guitar
Jim Tashjian: guitars
Patrick Mulchay: bass guitar
Jonathan Schang: drums, percussion

Find out more:

1 comment:

Don said...

I was worried about the hype as well, but the album delivered. After hearing "Can't Take You With Me" at NEARFest, I certainly wasn't expecting them to be as heavy as they are, and I certainly didn't expect a metal scream from Leslie Hunt like the one in the middle of "Termites". One of my favorite albums of 2010.

I've described them to friends as a female fronted Dream Theater (in terms of approach if not chops), except their pop sensibilities seem to owe more to Cheap Trick than Journey.