In Vaults by District 97

District97-InVaults-Frontcover-Preview2_0There 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.

One More Red Night — @District97 with John Wetton (Best Prog Albums of 2014 — Part 7)

Usually live albums don’t make it onto my Top Ten lists, but this one is so impressive that it cannot be denied its rightful place among the best of the year.

John Wetton is an incredible vocalist who is unbelievably still singing as amazingly as he ever has. And the musicianship of everybody else takes these Crim classics even beyond their original versions!

1. One More Red Nightmare (4:41)
2. The Great Deceiver (3:38)
3. Lament (4:19)
4. The Night Watch (5:31)
5. Fallen Angel (5:47)
6. Book Of Saturday (3:07)
7. 21st Century Schizoid Man (5:25)
8. Starless (4:47)
9. Easy Money (5:27)

Produced by Jonathan Schang

Recorded live on October 17, 2013 at Reggie’s Music Joint, Chicago, IL

John Wetton — Lead Vocal
Leslie Hunt — Lead and Backing Vocals
Jim Tashjian — Guitar, Backing Vocals
Rob Clearfield — Keyboards, Additional Guitar
Patrick Mulcahy — Bass
Jonathan Schang — Drums

Robert Fripp never had Leslie Hunt singing backup, did he? Well, it was Crimson’s loss! She may humbly take the back seat here, but her superstar harmonizing vocals, and the occasional dazzling lead on a verse here and there, indelibly inject another entire dimension into these brilliant songs.

I can’t get enough of listening to this album. Furthermore, it even spurred me on to listen to Crimson’s entire back catalogue this year. That’s because Leslie and the boys here forcefully reminded me what the upper echelon of prog is really all about.

District 97 has assumed the mantle, and I can’t wait to hear their new studio album set for release next year.

This stunning album gets five stars and makes my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014. I would love to see this band live someday. This album is proof that they are an absolutely killer live act.

One More Red Night — @District97 : ★★★★★

The new District 97 live album One More Red Night is out… and it is completely AWESOME.

John Wetton is superb, and the band does a mind-blowing job with all these Crim classics!

1. One More Red Nightmare (4:41)
2. The Great Deceiver (3:38)
3. Lament (4:19)
4. The Night Watch (5:31)
5. Fallen Angel (5:47)
6. Book Of Saturday (3:07)
7. 21st Century Schizoid Man (5:25)
8. Starless (4:47)
9. Easy Money (5:27)

Produced by Jonathan Schang

Recorded live on October 17, 2013 at Reggie’s Music Joint, Chicago, IL

John Wetton-Lead Vocal
Leslie Hunt- Lead and Backing Vocals
Jim Tashjian-Guitar, Backing Vocals
Rob Clearfield-Keyboards, Additional Guitar
Patrick Mulcahy-Bass
Jonathan Schang-Drums

Wow, is this band ever the real deal!

I can’t wait to hear the new studio album that is in the pipeline, thanks to their amazingly successful Kickstarter campaign.

Rock on, District 97. You are today’s upper-echelon prog, and you carry us on your mighty shoulders.

Yes, indeed. Faithful to all the best inspirations of yesteryear, Leslie and the boys are rigorously maintaining the interstellar standards of excellence which define the essence of prog.

I love this album! My friends, play it loud; and play it often.

You will be stunned at how good this album is!! I was not expecting this, but here it is.

It is now undeniable. District 97 has assumed the mantle!

District 97 preview

Attention all Progarchists! Time Lord relays and endorses the following message to you all:

Hi everyone,

We’re delighted to give you a sneak peak at a track from our upcoming 3rd studio album. The song is called Takeover, and was filmed on June 12, 2014 at Martyrs’: Please share this video!

If you’d like to hear this and the rest of our new music on a new album, please consider contributing to our Kickstarter, which launches August 25th!

Kickstarter Launch Shows
In celebration of the Kickstarter Launch, we’ll be playing some live shows. There are 2 confirmed so far, with more to be added:

Thursday, 8/28 @ Double Door
Chicago, IL
w/The Chinese Professionals, Riddle House
8 PM, tickets at

Friday, 9/5 @ Q-Bar
Darien, IL

Other News
Chicago is getting its very own Progfest this October! We’re really happy to be playing alongside bands such as Spock’s Beard, Stick Men, Richard Sinclair and many more. Join us for what should be an amazing weekend:

2105 S State St, Chicago, IL 60616
tickets at

Thanks for your support everyone!

Jonathan & District 97

Open Your Eyes — and Ears — to Leslie Hunt

The unstoppably awesome Leslie Hunt is giving away downloads of her last two albums at her online store.

This is amazing music by a rare talent, so grab it while you can!

If you like prog phenom District 97, you’ll really enjoy comparing Leslie’s 2009 version of “Open Your Eyes” (track #13 on Your Hair is On Fire) with District 97‘s 2012 version.

If you’re like me, you can’t get enough of both!

Thanks, Leslie, for the gift of your superb music.


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.

Nick’s Best of 2012 (Part 1)

2012 has been a fantastic year for progressive music. I’ve listened to a huge pile of albums and still don’t feel like I have scratched the surface of all the great material that’s out there at the moment. I know of albums that would probably be on my ‘Best Of’ list if only I’d had the time (and money) to hear them in full before now – Katatonia’s Dead End Kings, Mörglbl’s Brutal Romance and The Void from Beardfish spring immediately to mind. But a list must be produced, so let’s activate the ERTEM and get on with it!

First, some restrictions. My list considers only original releases of full albums from 2012: no reissues or remixes and no EPs. (Hey, I’ve got to simplify things somehow, OK?)

I’ll also split my list into three parts: ‘Highly Commended’, ‘Top 5 Contenders’ and ‘Top 5’. To avoid the paralysis of indecision, only the last of these will actually be ranked; the other two will be listed alphabetically.

We’ll begin with my Highly Commended category: 10 albums that I have enjoyed hugely this year.

AstraAstra – The Black Chord

Follow-up to their 2009 debut The Weirding, boasting higher production values. Variously described as ‘retro’ or ‘classic’ in sound, I suppose because of the liberal use of Hammond organ and Mellotron. I don’t know what you’d call it, but it’s trippy, atmospheric and darned good! The epic title track is particularly splendid.

CrippledBlackPhoenixCrippled Black Phoenix – (Mankind) The Crafty Ape

A big brooding monster of an album from the stoner prog legends, probably their best yet – although I have yet to hear the follow-up that appeared recently, No Sadness Or Farewell. (Yes, you read that right: two albums in one year). Pretty much how I’d expect Pink Floyd to sound if they’d all been born 25 years later.

District97District 97 – Trouble With Machines

Yes, yes, “former American Idol finalist”, blah blah blah. Forget all that nonsense about vocalist Leslie Hunt and concentrate instead on the music – precise, technical and totally absorbing, all crunching guitars and shifting time signatures, with Hunt’s voice weaving intricate and unusual melodies throughout. Top-class prog metal. John Wetton guests on one track.

TheEnidThe Enid – Invicta

How do you even begin to categorise such a unique band? Some people simply don’t ‘get’ The Enid, but if your tastes encompass the classical or symphonic, there’s a good chance you will fall in love with them. This latest release features a wonderful new lead vocalist, Joe Payne. There is high drama here – think opera or musical theatre – but also moments of great beauty and delicacy.

FlyingColorsFlying Colors – Flying Colors

Given my innate scepticism regarding supergroups, I really wasn’t expecting this to be as good as it is. Album opener Blue Ocean starts off like a more upbeat version of a track by The Doors, and Kayla is a superbly catchy pop anthem. There’s even some real, honest-to-goodness prog in here, in the form of long-form album closer Infinite Fire. A thumbs-up to all concerned; on this evidence, the second album really will be something to relish.

SteveHackettSteve Hackett – Genesis Revisited II

What can I say? A set of well-crafted, tasteful reinterpretations of classic Genesis tracks spanning the entire Hackett era, plus new versions of a few songs from his solo career. Call me a heretic, but I think some of them improve upon the originals. There are things on here that will make you smile and probably one or two that will make you frown, but discovering which is part of the fun. See my review for more details!

NineStonesCloseNine Stones Close – One Eye On The Sunrise

The follow-up to 2010’s Traces. Powerful and atmospheric, achieving true Floydian grandeur in places, with plenty of long liquid guitar solos that would would make Dave Gilmour proud. The excellent vocals of Marc Atkinson – sadly now moving on to pastures new – are also worthy of note. Stand-out tracks are probably The Weight and Frozen Moment.

AlanReedAlan Reed – First In A Field Of One

The solo format allows this former Pallas front man’s vocal talents to really shine. Well-crafted songs with a varied mix of styles, successfully blending prog, pop, rock and even folk influences. The finger-clicking jazzy opening of final track The Usual Suspects is unexpected, to say the least!

TheReasoningThe Reasoning – Adventures In Neverland

Reviewed elsewhere in the hallowed pages of Progarchy. A real statement of intent from a band still mourning the disappearance of former guitarist Owain Roberts. I might quibble with the production, which needs to be more crisp and dynamic, but the songs are very good – particularly those on the second half of the album.

ShadowOfTheSunShadow Of The Sun – Monument

Debut album from ex-Reasoning guitarist/singer Dylan Thompson’s new band. More straight metal than prog, with only hints of The Reasoning here and there. A very enjoyable blend of heavy stuff with one or two quieter and more mellow pieces. Definitely worth a listen.

Neal Morse, Chicago, October 12, 2012.

Last night, fellow Progarchist Mark Widhalm, our lovely and patient wives, and I had the wonderful privilege of enjoying six hours of live progressive rock.  We saw District 97, Three Friends (Gentle Giant), and Neal Morse.

Here are two photos from the event.  The first is of Three Friends.  The second is of Neal Morse.



Sorry about the poor quality of the photos; I took these with my Nokia phone.  I also got to see Chicago celebrities (well, at least they’re celebrity in the Birzer house), Mike and Sarah D’Virgilio.  I glimpsed Neal Morse’s manager and Facebook friend, Chris Thompson, from a distance, but he was a man understandably on a mission, and I didn’t want to interfere with his direction of the show.  “Hey Chris, it’s me, Brad, your Facebook friend!”  Yes, I can be obnoxious, but this might have gone a little too far, even for me.

A few quick impressions–Gary Green was one of the single finest guitarists I’d ever seen as was his bassist, Lee Pomeroy (of It Bites).  The music of Gentle Giant was rather mind-boggling and profound.  It was, I think, rock at its highest art.  Steve Hayward has been encouraging me to immerse myself.  Add Steve’s suggestion with actual performance, and I’m sold.  Now, another band to explore in its entirety

But, we went originally to see Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy.  The other music was just an excellent fringe benefit.

Neal Morse is a wonderfully talented madman.  I pretty much hung on his every word and action on stage.  His energy, his talent, and is ability to direct and lead his band is probably beyond compare.  While I’m sure I’m not the first person to place supernatural ability on a great show man, but Morse’s showmanship did seem to be animated by something well beyond (and above) this world.  I know this probably sounds absurd, but there was glow about him that I’ve only seen (once at most) on truly holy persons.

And, while I’ve always considered Mike Portnoy one of the world’s best drummers (along with Nick D’Virgilio and Neil Peart), I’ve always also thought his studio records seem more mechanical than soulful.  Watching him in action convinced me, rather strongly, that he’s a man as full of soul as he is of ability.  In judging his abilities, I realized I should never allow his precision and perfectionism to detract from his power and radiance of soul.  Having him and Neal Morse on the same stage was overwhelming, to say (write) the least.  These are two powerful personalities who served as critical poles of incarnate myth.  Because of my seating, I had a perfect view of Morse but a poor one of Portnoy.  Had I been able to choose between one or the other to focus on during the concert, I would’ve been rather torn.

The two men, despite clearly being perfectionists and powerful personalities, are obviously the best and most trusted of friends.  At one point, two obvious Mike Portnoy fans yelled something at the end of a very powerful moment in Morse’s Testimony.  Morse was a bit taken aback (as was the entire audience), and I would guess that the audience as a whole lost a story of some kind because of the interruption.  Portnoy stood up from his drumkit and yelled directly at the two: “There will be no heckling at a Neal Morse concert.”  He did it with great humor and strength.  Needless to write, no one yelled like that again.

Everyone in Morse’s band, not surprisingly, was an expert and multi-talented musician.  Randy George didn’t move around much, but he played his bass with confidence and skill.  All of the musicians, though, were equally good, and the most impressive part of the whole night were the vocal multipart harmonies which Morse directed with passion.

This was probably the best concert I’ve ever seen (Three Friends as well as Neal Morse).  Yes, I’m still basking in it.