There are times on District 97’s new album, In Vaults, when a “because it’s there” vibe rises like a Himalayan peak from the Plain of the Killer Riff: a successful descent doesn’t always follow the climb. But that’s what this band has signed itself up for, and the risk-taking on record plays, happily, with the irony of vocalist Leslie Hunt’s American Idol background. All the nonsense that is associated with Hunt’s alma mater plays a like a game of One of These Things Is Not Like The Other, as the singer, evidenced by her work with District 97, is about the last thing you’d expect to come out of the Idol scene but simultaneously the kind of artist you’d want to actually win. So, In Vaults is downright, and mostly satisfyingly, weird, something that maybe could only come out of a Chicago-based metal band with a conservatory pedigree and an Idol runner-up with some serious jazz chops. It is an exhaustive — at times exhausting — record that, despite its bumps and its occasional tendency for showing off chops over songs, brims with an energy that damns torpedoes and old dudes like me.
It’s no surprise that the band has been embraced by the likes of Bill Bruford and John Wetton, with whom District 97 has toured and recorded. King Crimson and Yes is in the lineage for sure, but Soft Machine, Opeth, and Abbey Lincoln all have a claim to some of the ground District 97 has planted its flag on. The lurching, Coltrane slabs of sound erupting from Jim Tashijian (guitar), Patrick Mulcahy (bass) and Jonathan Schang (gonzo drums) back-and-foreground Hunt’s jazz phrasing and hard rock smarts with an inventiveness that can move instantly from crushing doom metal to modal jazz and all stations in between, not least of which is strong affinity for pop melody in (often too) small doses. Rob Clearfield’s keyboards are like a less bitchy version of Roxy Music, less self-important than Kansas or ELP — for the volume of notes he pumps out, none seem wasted.
In Vaults ups the ante on District 97’s more melodically charged Trouble with Machines. This is a band not short on ideas, and Jonathan Schang’s songwriting is up for articulating a range of lyrical emotions over arrangements that don’t let up. There’s no getting bored, although there’s also little room to slip into a groove of any duration, something that would build tension in songs as long as these, and something I think the group would be really good at (when it happens in “Learn From Danny,” the moment really pops). What we do get, though, is a hyper-shifting Zappa-fueled jazz rock buffet that goes to new places on the shoulders of giants, so that in “Takeover” the nod to Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” is like Zeppelin nodding to Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well.” There is a lot going on in In Vaults, and District 97 is on to something fairly unique in the prog scene, matched really only by Seven Impale (and perhaps it is the youthfulness of both bands that accounts for this): a palpable search for that seam that both delivers the goods while not dwelling on long-worn paths.