One gets the impression that D97 are not one of those bands who will sound corny in ten or fifteen years’ time.
Chicago-based heavy prog band District 97 have revealed their fourth studio album Screens, serving up another slab of their uniquely powerful music to the hungry fans that waited four years since their previous album In Vaults. In typical D97 style, they present a collection of songs that are often complex in their time shifts and arrangements, yet somehow catchy and toe-tapping for the listener. Vocalist Leslie Hunt, drummer Jonathan Schang, and guitarist Jim Tashjian welcome relative newcomers Andrew Lawrence on keys and Tim Seisser on bass guitar, and what they have crafted together is honestly nothing short of thrilling for any fan of the band – and hopefully will garner some new ones.
As strong as they are as players, D97 also excel in the songwriting department, with an ear for strong melodies and hooks, and often interesting and inventive lyrics. Their crunchier guitar parts accent the constant groove to some of their heavier pieces, but the band never strays too far into all-out thrash metal territory. Instead, they walk that tightrope between metal, modern and prog rock, and they never fall off – they don’t even teeter. One gets the impression that D97 are not one of those bands who will sound corny in ten or fifteen years’ time.
The centrepiece of the album is surely the epic closing track Ghost Girl, 11 minutes of what D97 does best. They’ve mined this type of storytelling territory before, as with the track The Perfect Young Man from 2012’s Trouble With Machines, but they do this kind of thing very well, and it’s great fun to go on the creepy journey this track takes you on. Destined to become a fan favourite, and a classic of their catalogue, on or offstage. As with Trouble With Machines, where the band re-imagined a track (Open Your Eyes) from Hunt’s solo album Your Hair Is On Fire, they once again pluck a gem (Sea I Provide) from that same album and D97-ise it. In both cases, these have been strong tracks and are evidence of Hunt’s own convincing songwriting outside of the band. Obviously her songwriting inside the band is also noteworthy, as evidenced by the number of times her name appears in the credits. Terrific feel and groove to this track.
Another big highlight of Screens is guitarist Tashjian’s lone composition for the album, Bread & Yarn. This one almost has a feeling of ’90s alt rock electric ballad about it, setting a very effective mood with intriguing lyrics, before the song takes an abrupt turn into a bouncier, sunnier section. Through both of these conflicting moods, Tashjian and Hunt share the vocals, with the guitarist’s voice perhaps the actual lead, as it’s a tad more prominent in the mix. This is a satisfying moment though, as any band with more than one capable vocalist should use them when called upon, and it gives a different flavour in the middle of the album. I’m tempted to call this my favourite track – if not for the extended coda, which feels a bit unnecessary. This makes an otherwise perfect track run on a bit long, but the main song is so good, the band can be forgiven for this choice.
Trigger is another that needs mentioning. A very catchy track that begins with the chorus (Hey, why not, the Beatles did it) and has equally groovin’ verses and a cool middle section. There’s very little doubt as to what the lyrics allude to, but I’ll let the listeners deduce that for themselves. Everything about this winner of a track works beautifully – another of several big highlights.
It’s also worth noting how good this album sounds. D97 have not succumbed to the modern belief that all levels must be pushed to eleven at all times, resulting in mass clipping and ear fatigue. This is music that wants to be played loud, and can be – without sounding like an angry hornet’s nest. It’s heartening to see a younger, modern band that understands this.
I won’t go in depth on every track on the album, but suffice to say they are all splendid compositions, without a skipper in the bunch. This has always been a great band who grow and improve with each release, and Screens is no exception – in fact, this is the one that solidifies their place among the top tier of modern working bands today. There’s a reason that respected musical legends like Bill Bruford and John Wetton praised this band. Do yourself the favour and pick up Screens. It’s undoubtedly the richest and most balanced album of their already impressive catalogue.
Available at the band’s Bandcamp page and on Amazon.