There is something entirely familiar about the Opus’ Breathing Lessons. A claustrophobic, down-tempo assault of digitalized paranoia and cinematic murkiness, the album — the sophomore effort from the duo of Mr. Echoes and the Isle of Weight — occupies the same haunted space in which artistes like DJ Shadow, El-P and Aesop Rock stalk. No big surprise there: the post-apocalyptic crunch of hip-hop’s “underground” scene is the aforementioned rappers’ provenance, after all. Still, having already laid down numerous tracks for the Aesop and other hip-hop heavies such as I Self Divine and Atmosphere’s Slug, the Chicago-based duo is nevertheless in tune with the scene’s overriding aesthetic and has the beats to prove it.
With its upfront drum reflexes and gritty analog synths, Breathing Lessons wears its allegiance as a badge of honor. Even more, the eleven (mostly) instrumental tracks leave little doubt as to which direction Mr. Echoes and the Isle of Weight think hip-hop should head. Years from now, future emcees will champion the Opus’ recent work as the album that launched a thousand careers, simply for the work’s abundance of untainted, user-friendly beats alone, not to mention its sheer vitality. Aspiring rhymers need look no further than the record’s “Mission Control,” an atmospheric romp into sci-fi meltdown, or the tight, self-referential scat of “The Strange Adventures of Mr. Happy” to let loose some serious verse.
In the meantime, Breathing Lessons doesn’t always get it right. “EarthWalker” is scattered, even a little forced, and sounds as if it would be played at Urban Outfitters. And “Isis,” featuring vocals by Lord 360, interrupts the song’s — and for that matter the record’s — continuity before “Simbiotic,” a pounding breakdown of time, rights the duo’s down-tempo manifesto.
More damaging, though, is the representative nature of the record. Rather than carving out their own niche, the Opus is more than happy to piggyback on the influence of their hip-hop forebears, whether it be Shadow or even RZA’s later work. But for all their miscues, the Opus still works to keep hip-hop in motion, popping directives between every moody, engaging track, albeit in an all-too-familiar cadence.