by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger
Album Review of District 97: Screenplay (MindScan/Cherry Red Records)
District 97 is a progressive rock band from Chicago that has been on the international scene since 2006. They started out as an instrumental group but really began to flourish as a more melodic entity after they brought singer-songwriter and American Idol semi-finalist Leslie Hunt into the fold. The current lineup of the band also features guitarist/vocalist Jim Tashjian, bassist Tim Seisser, keyboardist Andrew Lawrence, and drummer Jonathan Schang. The group has released a series of studio and live albums since 2010. Their last studio recording Screens dropped in 2019. The current one here is a double disc that serves as a curious document of various live performances – both original and cover songs – dating back to 2011, with Disc One a live track by track rundown of their Screens album performed at a venue in The Netherlands in 2019.
Disc One opens with the track “Forest Fire.” It is a multi-layered piece blending dense vocal harmonies, fluctuating tempos and Tashjian’s experimental noisy guitar riffs. The result is an exciting balance of dissonant and consonant sounds.
“Sheep” is a Sessier/Hunt composition that seems to address portions of society that tend to follow more than lead. The somewhat obtuse and fanciful lyrics perhaps make a comment on media consumption and compliance: “You’re living your best life. The blue glowing light redeems you, feeds you, numbs you… The blue glowing light has changed you, claimed you, drained you. It’s counting you as sheep.” Hunt rides a smooth vocal wave here as Tashjian and Sessier offer tasty guitar and bass breakdowns, respectively.
“Sea I Provide” is somewhat of a straight-ahead rocker, with prominent cascading key passages from Lawrence. Metal-tinged guitar provides a thick wall of crunch that gives way to jazzy chords in the bridge. “Bread & Yarn” features sophisticated vocalizing between Hunt and Tashjian. It’s kind of a song cycle, with several thematic sections that drift from sedate to thunderous. The band deftly stacks a bunch of ideas in very compartmentalized fashion. It’s a real spotlight for the whole band.
“Trigger” keeps you on the edge of your seat, with its catchy harmonies, ear candy melodies and intrepid unison legato guitar and keyboard lines. The bass instrumental “After Orbit Mission” is a brief Jaco-esque vignette that leads into the aptly named “Shapeshifter.” With its many evolving musical detours and mind-bending lyrics the song indeed takes on a myriad of forms. In it, Hunt sings: “Blend with paper walls, I’ll change into something more comfortable to ignore. While you’re waiting for the form you’re expecting, but haven’t prepared for blow your lover has stored. Fully formed, you’re not who you were before.”
“Blueprint” starts out as a mellow and jazzy type of tune. Hunt sings surreal and dark lyrics through a barrage of altered changes, chords, and layers of sound. This one is not so much about blazing solos as stitching a number of vocal parts and thematic dynamics together smoothly.
The sides longest and final track is an ominous one called “Ghost Girl.” The 13-plus minute piece plays out as a short supernatural and suspenseful horror story. Hunt sings “How’s a girl to sleep at night with demons all around? They encircle me and then my bed lifts off the ground. They suffocate me, lacerate me across my naked flesh.” But then the supernatural sensibility hits home in, perhaps, a very real double-edged commentary on child abuse: “Mother, oh mother; I’m starting to see who was behind what happened to me. What was a little girl meant to do, when mother the only demon was you.”
Disc Two is a mix of live dates, from the U.S. and Europe, featuring early original songs from the band and an extensive covers set. In particular, District 97’s choices of artists and songs span an interesting and historically reflective gamut. The set list, assembled from several performances over the last decade or so, comprises a laundry list of key progressive and classic rock gems from the ‘70s and ‘80s. And the list is not without a few surprises. Jim Tashjian sings a very convincing solo version of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.” The band also covers a brilliant take on U.K.’s “Presto Vivace.” There are a couple back-to-back Bill Bruford songs that make the cut.
A real showstopper is a 2013 performance featuring District 97 backing the legendary John Wetton singing lead on King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.” But the absolute curveball in this whole package has to be an unlisted bonus rendition of that ‘80s perennial “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves. It’s a faithful studio cut they tack on at the end of Disc Two that legitimately rocks! Who says prog bands can’t cut loose from the norm every once in a while? Highly recommended!
District 97 has a few upcoming concerts listed on the “Shows” tab of the band’s website. On October 28th, you’ll find them at the Brass Mug in Tampa, FL. On October 30th, they’re scheduled to perform as part of Progoween on the Ranch at the Crimson Sky Ranch in Masaryktown, FL. They’ll be back at their home base in Chicago, IL, on November 19th, at Reggie’s. And District 97 is scheduled on the Cruise to the Edge May 2nd-7th, 2022, departing from Port Canaveral, FL. For additional details and new dates as they’re added, keep an eye on the District 97 website and its Facebook page. (The Facebook page, for example, lists a November 1st gig at the Sweetwater Bar and Grille in Duluth, GA.) As always – and especially during a pandemic, when calendars and policies are constantly changing – double-check with a reliable source before heading out to a concert.