Chicago based progressive metal band District 97 have received critical acclaim for their work so far with members of/formerly of the likes of King Crimson, Asia, Transatlantic, Yes and Genesis all singing their praises along with Rolling Stone magazine throwing its weight behind them. With two albums under their belt already, the five piece are set to follow up with their third album, “In Vaults”. Let’s see if the contents of this vault are worth raiding.
The one thing which stands out with this band is their approach to the arrangement of their songs. Throughout the entire album you can tell there has been meticulous planning and a rigorous eye to detail when it comes to how each song flows. From the sounds to the pace and feel, everything is in place to create the maximum effect. The clean passages are intricate, often involving clean guitars, acoustic guitars and gentle use of synths and easy sounding drums whilst the heavier and more up tempo sections range from light distortion to a full on heavy sound.
Whilst this approach is good, it somewhat stifles the feel as there are too many calm and clean arrangements, but then again, this is modern progressive metal with a more old feel to it, similar to those who have sang their praises. They focus more on melody than metal and this approach does work. The guitar passages are well crafted and some of the solos are very expressive and beautiful sounding. The track “A Lottery” is easily the high point of the album where everything mentioned above works together in perfect synergy to create a real captivating track. However, the downside to this is that looking through the list of bands District 97 is aimed at and sounds similar to which came in the presser (Dream Theater, Rush and Meshuggah are the three which caught my attention), it doesn’t really sound anything like those. Whilst “In Vaults” may have the grandiose complex arrangements of these bands, there aren’t any technically perfect solos in the style of John Petrucci or any of Neal Peart’s mesmerising drum skills and I couldn’t find any trace of sonic earthquake causing low register polyrhythmic riffling in vein of Fredrik Thordendal.
Instead this band appeals more to the likes of Genesis, Yes, King Crimson and Asia. Bands who prefer to craft a story than music. Whilst some of the musicianship on “In Vaults” is great, a lot of it is very easy to just drift off to whilst listening and just fades into background noise, with the occasional vocal line or lead melody catching your attention every so often to remind you that it is still playing. Whilst it does have some great moments, they are very sparse on this album. When I hear progressive metal, I expect something which can hold your attention for prolonged periods of time across a wide variety of musical styles and approaches to playing – instrumentals where the melody lines themselves sing out like a vocalist, extended guitar and keyboard solos, hypnotic rhythm work and captivating lyrical themes. This might be progressive in some elements, but it’s not the type of prog which appeals to me.