District 97
  • Courtesy the artist
  • District 97

Some prog rock sounds like the work of a sweaty, chain-smoking obsessive holed up in a cellar full of ammunition and Spam, trying to suss out the workings of a sinister conspiracy on cluttered bulletin boards a la the unhinged cops in Se7en or True Detective. But despite prog’s often fiendish complexity, it doesn’t always go hand-in-hand with what you might euphemistically call disordered mental processes—sometimes it’s gleaming and triumphal, like the product of a futuristic laboratory in a Marvel superhero movie. Chicago five-piece District 97, who celebrate the release of their third studio album, In Vaults (Laser’s Edge), with a show at Martyrs’ on Friday, definitely fall into the latter category.

Of course, I’m leaving out the entire “elf shit” subset of prog, but I’m not trying to devise a taxonomy here—I want to talk about District 97. They call themselves “undoubtedly the most musically adventurous rock band in the world to feature an American Idol top-ten female finalist,” a claim I certainly can’t gainsay (not least because I’m no expert on American Idol contestants). And when Charles Snider, author of The Strawberry Bricks Guide to Progressive Rock, wrote about District 97 for In Rotation in 2011, he described them as “the genre’s brightest prospect.”

Drummer Jonathan Schang, keyboardist Rob Clearfield, bassist Patrick Mulcahy, and guitarist Jim Tashjian all have jazz bona fides, and formidable vocalist Leslie Hunt (who appeared on American Idol in 2007, before joining the band) is the daughter of Chicago jazz drummer Steve Hunt, probably best known these days for his roles in the NRG Ensemble and Extraordinary Popular Delusions. The group’s first lineup came together at the Chicago College of Performing Arts, where Hunt majored in composition and her bandmates studied jazz.

District 97 play a style of prog whose labyrinthine song structures, eccentric meters, and casual displays of virtuosity owe a lot to the genre’s 70s giants, including Yes, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer (Clearfield occasionally busts out a synth patch that sounds straight out of “Karn Evil 9”). Accessible, foregrounded melodies come with that turf, and Hunt delivers them with authority. You’re not meant to puzzle over the intricacies of this music—you’re meant to be dazzled by them.

The song streaming below, “Takeover,” is the first full track released from In Vaults. It premiered yesterday at Prog Magazine, appropriately enough. On Friday at Martyrs’, Cheer-Accident headline; opening the show are Lovely Little Girls, who have a new album of their own in the can.

Philip Montoro

Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid and another in 2021 for Leor Galil's history of Neo, and he’s also split three national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and two (in 2020 and 2022) for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. Philip has played scrap metal in Lozenge, drummed with the Disasters, the Afflictions, and Brilliant Pebbles, and sung for the White Outs. He wrote the column Beer and Metal from 2012 till 2015, and hopes to do so again one day. You can also follow him on Twitter.