Impossibly sick drum groove by Jonathan Schang: check. Heavy unison guitar/bass riff from Jim Tashijan and Tim Seisser: check. “Yep, that’s District 97. Now where was I?”
But then new keyboardist Andrew Lawrence joins in, steering opener “Forest Fire” in a head-snapping direction with cool, jazzy chords. Cue Leslie Hunt, riding a thrilling vocal line over a cascade of progressions and textures — including off-kilter breakdowns from Lawrence and Schang. By the time the track climaxes with a powerhouse unison lick (all in under five minutes), my head’s where it belongs — in the music.
Screens feels like a fresh start for District 97. The Chicago quintet’s trademarks — Hunt’s lush tone and oblique, syncopated melodies, Tashijan and Seisser’s thick crunch and odd-time riffage, Schang’s lateral ideas and heady polyrhythms — are all present, correct and on point. But to me, Lawrence is the secret ingredient that’s taken them to a new level, bringing a love of jazz fusion and a rich sense of harmony to the party.
This edition of the band isn’t afraid to take chances with the new tunes — leaving more space, leaning into dynamic contrast, unexpectedly launching skittery, Zappaesque flurries of noise. Which enables shorter tracks like “Sea I Provide”, “Trigger” and “Blueprint” to cover lots of ground, and the extended efforts “Sheep”, “Bread & Yarn” and “Ghost Girl” to feel like genuine epics. Everybody contributes to the writing and all the players solo — which makes the overall sound more unified and more expansive at the same time.
And all this gives Leslie Hunt more room to run than ever. It’s hard to think of a vocalist in progressive music with so many tools at her disposal: a gutsy, versatile sound and technique; deeply expressive emotional range; a fertile, eclectic imagination powering her melodies and lyrics. On Screens, Hunt simultaneously sounds fully unleashed and fully integrated into the band. Focusing on the lyrical theme of isolation (self-inflicted in “Sheep” and “Shapeshifter”, imposed by others in “Trigger” and “Ghost Girl”), she makes a meal of it: throughout the album, she reacts, resists, reflects, rages — and when she can, reaches out (especially in the poppy “Sea I Provide” and the gorgeous ballad “Blueprint”). She’s something else.
For all their obvious love of the genre, talent and energy (I’ve been bowled over both times I’ve seen them play to hometown crowds), I’ve sometimes felt that District 97’s music had trouble standing out in a crowded field, especially when they’ve leaned into the metal. Trouble with Machines and In Vaults are fine albums, but over the years they blurred together in my ears. Gratifyingly, Screens busts out into new territory, stretching D97’s sound and style in refreshing, exciting ways, and setting the table for continued growth. This one’s a winner that’s worth your time and attention.
Screens is currently available as a signed advance CD from the band. The digital version (released October 4) can be pre-ordered at Bandcamp. The regular CD (released October 11 in the US) can be pre-ordered at Amazon.
— Rick Krueger