Sound — 8
What if I told you that not every "American Idol" contestant has been involved with bland, mediocre pop music? What if they released truly forward-thinking-yet-backward-thinking prog-rock? What if they infused it with catchy pop melodies and virtuosic instrumental work? District 97 is just the band I describe and "Hybrid Child" is one hell of an album. Fronted by Leslie Hunt, a former "American Idol" contestant, backed by some of Chicago's finest musicians, including a cellist from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, this band is creating quite a stir in the progressive rock world, garnering the praises of prog mainstays like Bill Bruford (who has played with them live), John Wetton, Roine Stolt, and others. But what is this album all about? Well, the first four tracks are as concise as the album gets, and they all exhibit some interesting traits: Leslie's pop-influenced vocal melodies, guitarist Jim Tashjian's riffs, drummer Jonathan Schang's shifting time signatures, Rob Clearfield's exquisite keyboard playing, and bassist Patrick Mulcahy's tight playing. The band also utilized cellist Katinka Klein for an added texture, and it works flawlessly. The production is slick and modern, the songwriting is as accessible as prog gets, but never sounds watered down or unintelligent. There are no boring parts, and everything sounds in its right place. "I Can't Take You With Me" and "Termites" are especially powerful tracks, the former combining the band's penchant for pop hooks with prog instrumental playing flawlessly, and the latter showing a nearly prog-metal intensity. The final batch of tracks are part of a larger, half-hour composition called "Mindscan," and it consists of many sections, each very different. Some parts consist of very little music, focusing on ambiance and electronic noise, others being songs in their own rights. I did find the experience of "Mindscan" a little jolting at first, as it can be quite a task to listen to in its entirety, but the more song-oriented sections are as great as the rest of the record. None of this truly diminishes the wonderful sound of this band.
Lyrics — 8
Leslie Hunt certainly has her work cut out for her compared to the tripe she was forced to sing on "American Idol," and she really comes through as a brilliant frontwoman for this band. Pop melodies and prog may seem like mutually exclusive concepts, but she blends them so effortlessly on this record that even a song like "Termites" seem extremely catchy. It's rare to find a prog album that would make a lot of people want to sing along, and even though the lyrics in songs like "I Don't Wanna Wait Another Day" and "I Can't Take You With Me" may be a bit repetitive, they get stuck in your head whether you want them to or not! But they don't just limit themselves to repetitive, standard lyrics, as seen in "Mindscan" and "Termites," the latter of which has very interesting, thoughtful lyrics like "take only pics/leave only footprints/but don't make them big/intestines too long/canine teeth too small/you dig and you dig." Leslie's delivery ranges from smooth pop singing to a couple of metallic screams, and she has a very impressive sound. There are few female vocalists in the genre, and prog could use more Leslie Hunts!
Overall Impression — 9
There aren't very many bands to compare District 97 to. Though they take a lot of elements from bands like Dream Theater, King Crimson, Yes, and mix pop and prog like Muse or Queen before them, they sound almost nothing like any of those bands. They're a truly unique band in their genre, which is a big deal in and of itself, since prog seems to have started to stagnate a bit in recent years. Leslie's pop-infused vocals and Katinka's cello playing add a bit of a breath of fresh air to the genre, and make D97 one of the most truly forward-thinking progressive rock acts out there. Even though some fans might have a hard time stomaching "Mindscan" in all its impressive glory, the other four tracks on the record leave nothing wanting. "I Can't Take You With Me" is the kind of song that would be a chart-topper in a perfect world where catchiness AND skill are equally praised. It's not often that I equate catchiness with greatness, but this band has really hit the perfect balance on this record, and if their second album, "The Trouble With Machines," is even nearly as perfectly balanced as this record, I'll be in for a real treat when I finally hear it. I would recommend this album to anyone looking for something fresh in both prog and pop-rock. It exists in its own little world, but it welcomes everyone to like it. This is worth spinning, no matter what your taste in music, and worthy of a 9/10 overall. Hopefully, this band gets its taste of real success by winning a Prog Award this year!