District 97: In Vaults

Brilliant third album from the Prog-approved Chicagoans.

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This young Chicago band were already accomplished beyond their years when they were nominated in the ‘Breakthrough Artist’ category at the 2013 Prog Awards. But it’s taken until this, their third LP, for their potential to be fully realised.

Opener Snow Country is a good example of In Vaults in microcosm. Unhurried yet impassioned, it segues through sections of muscular riffing, keyboard-led old school prog, big choruses and then a tasteful, syncopated metallic breakdown at the end to finish things off with a punch.

Death By A Thousand Cuts is another early highlight, its sparser verses showing off composer/drummer Jonathan Schang’s technical chops (and confessional lyrics, his style maturing nicely). This is developed to fruition in a wonderfully off-kilter middle eight, somewhere in the ballpark of a classic prog act jamming with Meshuggah.

Sheer quality – a brilliant album by a brilliant band.

A lot of press for District 97 fixates on singer Leslie Hunt’s past as an American Idol finalist, and there’s no doubt she’s a talented vocalist and charismatic frontwoman, especially when taking the lead on cuts such as the Yes-like Handlebars. Yet the success of this band lies largely in its very core: in the songwriting, the interplay between Schang and bassist Patrick Mulcahy, and the assured guitars of Jim Tashijian. Genius glimmers in the carefully orchestrated polyrhythms closing Death By A Thousand Cuts, and the tight, close-harmony playing in A Lottery’s breakdown. Many of In Vaults’ classic prog moments come from Rob Clearfield’s distinctly Yes/Oldfield-inspired keyboard parts, as do some of the record’s most tasteful pieces of subtle ornamentation.

Takeover’s lilting, distorted riffs and trills recall the chromatic, angular latter tracks of Porcupine Tree’s In Absentia to some extent, while the keyboards unabashedly echo The Yes Album. It may sound like a jarring mix in theory, but in practice it works most excellently. On Paper, meanwhile, is genuine single material; not just in the sense that it’s the most concise song on a progressive rock album, but that it’s got the melodies and the swagger – thanks in no small part to Hunt’s tremendous vocal – to carry itself like a true pop song.

Knowing when to take the lead and when to contribute to the whole of the piece is a fine art, and throughout the knotty yet melodic songs that make up In Vaults, each member of District 97 treads this line with aplomb. Together they feel like a band keen to prove themselves, and given the sheer quality here, they can be justly proud that they have. It’s a brilliant album from a brilliant band.