Trouble with Machines (Best of 2012 — Part 9)

District 97

Another one of the albums in my Top Ten for 2012 is District 97’s Trouble with Machines.

Nick is right to call this “top-class prog metal.” It’s the sort of thing that is right up my alley.

But what makes this disc a cut above all the others in its class, and truly worthy of being in the upper echelon in that beloved genre, is the outrageously distinctive jazz sensibility that Leslie Hunt brings to these songs.

In fact, it is hard not to classify Trouble with Machines as the best jazz album of the year!

Just listen to all those wildly intricate jazzy vocal lines that Leslie does. Totally mind-blowing. And all in perfect coordination with her bandmates.

I was going to put Map of the Past by It Bites into this slot in my top ten, but Trouble with Machines won out instead. Partly this is because of my own metallic predilection, a longstanding gravitation towards riff-tastic guitar work.

But mostly this is because the prog-pop excellence of It Bites was eclipsed for me by the more purely pop perfection of Bend Sinister, which won a spot in my Top Ten this year instead. Beautiful as Map of the Past is, the purer power pop perfection of Small Fame wins out.

In other words, for me the prog on the It Bites disc is less innovative than District 97’s prog-giness, and the pop less perfect than Bend Sinister’s pop-iness. But darn it, this was a tough call to make.

I love how District 97 has a bunch of my all-time favorites as their prog influences: e.g., you can catch them live doing eminently satisfying covers of Rush and Genesis. But then they transcend all that and do something amazing: i.e., they are able to be their own audaciously unique selves.

What a great album this is. Don’t miss it. I think it exhibits a magical truth of prog: viz., how a truly great group must be one that is made up of extremely talented individuals but who then become something even greater than the mere sum of their parts.

Moreover, this amazing group is arguably what jazz was always meant to become, in order to articulate the maximum impact of its full musical potential. At least that’s what their amazing jazz metal is for a guy like me.

Wildly exemplary.

9 thoughts on “Trouble with Machines (Best of 2012 — Part 9)

  1. I had the unfortunate pleasure of seeing District 97 for a few songs at a Neal Morse concert back in October. I say unfortunate because I wasn’t familiar with their music at all. I didn’t give them much thought after because it’s hard to appreciate complex and interesting music the first time you hear it. Fortunately I was going through one of the many top 10 lists here and saw them again. I decided to acquaint myself with the music and started to really dig it, so much so that this CD is now on the way to me via Amazon.

    The word prog used to describe music here is all over the map, so I sometimes wonder how useful a moniker it is. District 97 reminds me a several things that aren’t exactly prog. One is Gwen Stefani and a few songs I liked by No Doubt. I like D97s pop sensibility. They also remind me of a music I was very much into in the 1980s, fusion. The guitar player sounds to me at times very much like Allan Holdsworth, which is a unique sound indeed.

    This is a band that could one day break out of the prog ghetto to give people a chance to appreciate a bit more than your typical pop fare.


  2. Nice review; I’ve really been enjoying this album as well the past few weeks. John Wetton has a nice vocal cameo on “Perfect Young Man”. I agree that Leslie lends a jazz sensibility to her vocals. I also bought their debut album, Hybrid Child, but it’s not as good – I don’t think they had gelled as a group yet. The songs sound like instrumentals with her vocals grafted on to them.


  3. Chris, when I saw them live in Chicago, I thought there was a lot of middle-period Rush in them (Grace under Pressure through Hold Your Fire). Leslie Hunt (and the others) are still really young, but they will very quickly mature into a major force in prog and in music in general. Thanks for this.


  4. carleolson

    Chris: I like this album more each time I hear it; it has grown on me a great deal since my first listen. But I’m not sure about the jazz connection. I can hear a bit of that in the vocals, as mentioned, but otherwise am not hearing it. I think we could have an interesting discussion about that, which would probably lead to the Big Question: “What, really, is this thing called ‘jazz’?” For me, following the lead of those much more versed in the world of jazz, it involved a combination of improvisation and some sort of swing (itself a difficult word to pin down). I don’t necessarily hear much of either in “Trouble with Machines”. But, in the end, that doesn’t distract at all from my enjoyment of the album, as it is very good on its own merits, regardless of genre.


    1. Sed contra: I would say that indeed the album has *swing* (cf. “Who Cares”), and that on it a jazz *improv* sensibility is found, although rightly subsumed under the discipline of prog. To be sure, I am being intentionally provocative by calling this the jazz album of the year! But if I am guilty of deliberate hyperbole with my jaded assertion, surely with your assertion that you only hear “a bit” of jazz in the vocals you are guilty of litotes. And I challenge anyone to name me a jazz album this year that is more interesting than this one (for this challenge, you may define jazz any way you choose); because my position is that jazz *needs to progress*.


  5. I agree with Carl here. There are jazz hints in Leslie Hunt’s singing, but that’s about it I think. It’s definitely prog-metal with some fusion thrown in, which I guess assumes a bit of jazz. I’m only on my second time through the album, and as I continue to listen I think it will continue to grow on me. I’m into heavy, and there is plenty to be found in District 97. The musicianship is first rate, and I agree with Brad that they could be a major force in years to come.


  6. John Deasey

    Interesting comments – I knew nothing about this band or indeed Leslie Hunt and her American Idol connections. Several YouTube clips later and it is clear to see she is a very talented singer (of whatever style). It’s great to see a person who seems to have found their niche and being very comfortable with it – in the video above (Open Your Eyes) she has a brilliant swagger and confidence …. love the album and like their style …


  7. Pingback: Open Your Eyes — and Ears — to Leslie Hunt « Progarchy: A Celebration of Music


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