District 97 is one of those bands I have always respected but never quite loved. With undeniable talent and a unique vision, they burst onto the scene in 2010 with Hybrid Child. Wearing their quirks on their collective sleeves set them apart from other bands ploughing the same field. Still, there was always that indefinable something about their songwriting that not only made them one of a kind, it also made them hard to embrace. All the elements were there, it’s just that – in my opinion – they needed a certain level of refinement. With new album Stay for the Ending, drummer Jonathan Schang believes “this is the strongest collection of songs we’ve ever assembled”. I dare say he’s correct. The usual fine performances are here in abundance, but the craft of songwriting has been elevated in a manner the band has not previously achieved.
Opening with the title track, the differences are immediately noticeable. All the quirks and riffs that were so prominent on previous efforts have now been massaged to sit comfortably within the context of the song, not to exist alongside it. The rhythm guitar and keyboards are much more prominent this time around while Leslie Hunt’s vocals are more consistently melodic. The instruments are now all working in tandem, so when Hunt asks you to “Stay for the ending”, you already want to. Mirror kicks off with a marvelously restrained and beautiful synth and guitar introduction before being brutalised by bass and percussion. Guitarist Jim Tashjian’s harmony vocals are up front and a perfect foil for Hunt, enriching the vocal parts with deeper dimension, a nice contrast to the crushing rhythm attack going on beneath them. Using Andrew Lawrence’s piano as the lead instrument supporting Hunt’s solo vocal turn gives the song a lift, enabling her to flaunt her range as the boys in the band get to demonstrate their formidable chops. The song is full of light and shade, even gentle at times. The guitar/synth interplay towards the end of the song is a delight that magnifies the harmonised lyrics: “The mirror always shows/The one who’s really in control”. Everything about this song is right on point, from the writing to the performance to the production, revealing everything you knew District 97 were capable of.
The pleasant surprises just keep on coming, and Many New Things is one of the more outstanding of them. At first blush, it sounds like an ’80s power ballad, Hunt’s voice almost sweet-sounding. Synths and a drum machine pound out the beat before a new monster synth riff gets doubled on piano, sending the song in a whole new direction. The layering instrumentation adds more edge to the riff and the vocals respond in kind. A brilliant guitar solo leads to the tune breaking down again, showcasing the chemistry of Hunt and Tashjian’s harmonies. This just keeps getting better. I love the new conspicuousness of the keys on Crossover. In fact, each instrument has the chance to be clearly heard. Rather than dazzle with technique, as they often have in the past, they each realise the monumental value of coalescing to create a mood. When they do explode midway, the impact is so much greater. There are shades of UK when Crossover embraces the angularity as part of the composition.
Divided We Fall and Life Cycle stand in contrast to one another. The former uses a gargantuan wall of sound to assault the listener, the latter seduces you in with a contemplative piano and guitar introduction. Divided takes the remnants of the old band and gives them a greater sense of expression, exposing the emotion previously locked within the machine. Life Cycle has an almost jazzy sheen at times, thanks to the chord structure and Schang’s percussion approach, making this song one of the standouts in the District 97 canon. Hunt sings: “Now it’s time for you to see/There’s a new reality/That’s bigger than both of us combined”, a mantra that could well be the album’s guiding principle. The song builds intensity without the expected release; instead, it pulls back and calms down. This is a band that has gone to its own Crossroads and returned with a new sensitivity that has elevated them not to the next level, but several beyond.
Tracks X and X-Faded work in tandem. The first is a short instrumental with an aortal beat and a one-note piano riff setting up a spacey instrumental leading into Hunt singing gently over an acoustic guitar for X-Faded. Make no mistake, though – this is no folk tune. Bass, drum and synth pulses quickly ratchet up the tension before Tashjian’s guitar blows it all up, only to repeat the formula. By the time the last pulse section arrives, it is joined by cool synth stabs and odd noises (is that a duck call I hear?) that add a whole other dimension. The band is firing on all cylinders.
Hearkening back to their old riff-tastic days with Deck is Stacked, Hunt’s sing-songy vocal approach is a reminder of why I became intrigued the first time I heard the band. The attitude and clever little musical nuances that are new to the band give this throwback a time-jumping feel, honouring their past while existing in the present. Schang even takes a drum solo, a tactic that for me rarely works on a studio recording. Here, however, the sheer chutzpah and understated talent are emblematic of the band’s confidence and ability. I first heard The Watcher performed live a few years back. Since then, the song has marinated and benefitted from the new perspective. Originally more in line with their old songwriting patterns, there is much more depth than I recall from the live performance, mainly due to Lawrence’s keyboards. Tim Seisser’s bass notes bend and stretch while keeping pace with the guitar, Schang’s drums play in opposition to the riff, and there is a brief solo keyboard interlude that repeats amidst the mayhem. Its these little details that represent the maturity and growth District 97 have undergone during the creation of this album.
Finally, this is the District 97 album I have been waiting for. Every song on Stay for the Ending is essential, both in terms of artistic growth and as an addition to their body of work. If, like me, you admired this band more than you enjoyed them, give this disc a spin. If you’ve never heard them before, there is no finer place to start. This is the crowning achievement of their fifteen years together to this point. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so eager to see how a band will follow up their latest. If Stay for the Ending is any indication of their future direction, I will most certainly be hanging around for the duration.
01. Stay For The Ending (4:46)
02. Mirror (8:41)
03. Many New Things (5:37)
04. Crossover (5:30)
05. Divided We Fall (5:00)
06. Life Cycle (6:54)
07. X (1:15)
08. X-Faded (4:21)
09. Deck is Stacked (7:30)
10. The Watcher (9:38)
Total Time – 59:18
Leslie Hunt – Vocals
Andrew Lawrence – Keyboards
Jim Tashjian – Guitar, Vocals
Tim Seisser – Bass
Jonathan Schang – Drums, Percussion
Record Label: Spirit of Unicorn Music
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 20th October 2023