Progressive rock is a curious beast. Rising from the psychedelia of Britain's late 60s, its heyday was some forty years ago. Of its reputation, album side-long suites, extensive soloing and cosmic album covers remain their legacy, one that is both revered by some, and dubious to others. It wasn't a total flash however, though flashy playing was certainly central to it. The mainstays, Yes, Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer, etc, still enjoy that infamy to this very day. After all, prog rock was a thing of excess, but one where more was truly more. It was big - gigantic, in fact. It had scale. Eventually however, the Goliath of a dinosaur met its David in a bunch of young punks. Nowadays, prog rock unfortunately resembles something a little more dated; the live experience resides in festivals, tribute bands and men in their forties, fifties, and sixties. So it's easy to forget that prog rock was once vital and exciting. Don't get me wrong, there is still plenty that is good about progressive rock, and like most of its adherents, I'm a total obsessive. I simply love the stuff. After all, the music was and still is an adventure for the listener.
But what relevance does prog rock have now, in the year 2010? Has it really made some sort of come back? Chat boards reel with prospects of a return - perhaps the second or third coming - of an old legend, even though you can probably count on your hands the number of bands that have succeeded in creating something really new. With decades, rather than years, now pass between albums, new offerings from the old guard are still feverishly anticipated, though they rarely sell more than well-packaged reissues. Tribute bands draw legions of the faithful, but really, isn't it just a guilty bite of nostalgia? More recently, some newer groups have started to wave the prog banner, discard it, then drape it back on when fitting, while others just provide a carbon copy to an original and then lay claim to influencing anything remotely close to it. Ahem.
So what happens when a bunch of twenty year olds bill themselves as Chicago's premiere progressive rock band? You check them out. Hailing from suburban Oak Park, District 97 is led by drummer and primary composer Jonathan Schang, along with two childhood friends: Patrick Mulcahy on bass and Rob Clearfield on 'boards. Guitarist Jim Tashjian and vocalist Leslie Hunt are slightly later additions, friends from their days at Roosevelt University. And the cellist, Katinka Kleijn, is on loan from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, though her attendance in the live unit is unfortunately more mythical than present. But they're all consummate professionals, and despite their short years, each musician has a CV to back it up, whether it's playing with the likes of Goran Ivanovic or Fareed Haque, in a jazz combo, a Velvet Underground cover band, or as a finalist on American Idol.
Hybrid Child is D97's debut album. How fitting a title it is for an album of prog rock performed by a group of their (lack of) vintage. Rock music has been around for some five or six decades now. And with the ubiquity of the internet, every bit of its history is available to either enjoy - or completely ignore. So maybe it isn't so strange that a group of young musicians would pick up on prog rock and set their course towards its horizon. The pair of tracks that open the album, "I Don't Wanna Wait Another Day" and "I Can't Take You With Me", could have another life outside the prog context; while D97's sense for pop melody and an overtly simplistic lyric yank those lured in by the Idol connection, they're much more than mere fodder for the masses - whether they need to be or not. Next pair of tracks raises the bar further as they fully embrace the progressive: "The Man That Knows Your Name" rides their signature gun-metal rhythm, but it's those carefully orchestrated passages of unison and the huge symphonic refrain that not only cement them as prog, but even lend a nod to the most revered of Italian classics. "Termites" takes it into another, more concurrent direction. Yes, there's a fair amount of heavy in the D97 hybrid, and this one goes all the way to the proverbial eleven: the crunch is more aggressive, the vocal more relentless, and with head banging feverishly I'm expecting cookie monster vocals at any moment. Give me more!
Well, clocking in at 27:36, the album's centerpiece "Mindscan" is about as more as it gets. Offering an epic length track of album-side proportion is risky business. But is it really prog rock enough for a band to just rely on how well they play their chops, or wear their influences on their sleeve? Okay, someone's listened to Yes and Rush, and probably a few other legends from the classic era. Yet "Mindscan" is highly original and ambitious prog rock: ten sections of more atmospheric synths, more keyboard solos, more studio alchemy, more huge sweeping melodies, more metal crunch; it's an epic track that's based on composition. And here's the best part - it's a musical journey. Throughout its instrumental and vocal sections, "Mindscan" delivers the kind of music that you close your eyes to, turn your ears on to, and travel off far inside your the mind. I might go as far as to call the track a "Close to the Edge" for the 21st century, but those would be some fairly large shoes to fill. Yet after living with the album for more than a few listens, I'm starting to believe that it's no exaggeration. D97 are big, you know - gigantic, like the prog of old. And with "Mindscan" they deliver the epitome of prog rock: the album-side long piece. Who the hell has done that lately?
And then there's the voice. Who'd have ever thought a woman could sing prog rock with such authority? And with such conviction? No, I don't have issues with female vocalists, it's just that I haven't really heard a voice like hers in this context, and of the precious few that I have, never one quite this, um, ballsy. Leslie Hunt's talent is undeniable. But how will the prog cognoscenti react to her? That should be interesting! And the keyboardist, Rob Clearfield. He's slugged in quite a few fantastic solos throughout the record - just check out "Mindscan Part III: Realization". Can we only wish that he would write a solo record with such fury? And what about Jonathan Schang? A mild yet auspicious young man, he's the brain-child of D97 - composer, lyricist, manager, booking agent, and about to turn 27 years of age. What will the future hold for his young talent? And do I even need to mention Jim Tashjian, Patrick Mulcahy or Katinka Kleijn's contributions? Haven't you bought the album yet?
Here's a secret: I've seen D97 live a few times now. The band's not only tight and energetic; it's downright gratuitous at times - perhaps the ultimate quality of a prog band. They also sport a vocalist with more stage presence than any idol, American or otherwise. D97 is in fact the real deal and I haven't been this excited about a band in a very, very long time. Yet I'm reminded again that this is just the beginning, the first release from a group of musicians who were born well-after the golden age of prog, and not a band with decades of experience behind them. Is Hybrid Child perfect? No, but neither is any other child. Yet as every parent knows, with a little encouragement, the future is filled with endless possibilities. Enter District 97 and see why prog rock just got a new lease on life.
Charles Snider-August 25, 2010
Author, The Strawberry Bricks Guide To Progressive Rock
01.I Don't Want To Wait Another Day
02.I Can't Take You With Me
03.Man Who Knows Your Name, The
05.Mindscan I: Arrival
06.Mindscan Ii: Entrance
07.Mindscan III: Realization
08.Mindscan IV: Welcome
09.Mindscan V: Examination
10.Mindscan VI: Hybrid Child
11.Mindscan VII: Exploration
12.Mindscan VIII: What Do They Want
13.Mindscan IX: When I Awake
14.Mindscan X: Returning Home