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17 August, 2004@12:00 am

       As hip-hop albums themselves have transformed into works of art, the classic instrumental album has been delegated to serving as the easels, pencils, and paints with which emcees work. Instrumentals merely serve their purpose as mixtape material freestyle sessions nowadays with producer playing second fiddle to the man with the mic. That is, unless the album is The Opus’ Breathing Lessons, a truly unique instrumental experience that can best be described as either easy-listening gone mad or hip-hop gone depressed as two Chicago instrumentalists (ahem, sophisticated producers Mr. Echoes a.k.a. Fanum and The Isle of Weight) present a kaleidoscope of human emotions as told through the music itself.

       “Fanum’s Organ,” the lead track on “Breathing Lessons,” will actually fool most listeners with its scratching and cutting on the record into believing that The Opus will drag their selections of musical tastes into hip-hop. Actually, they instead choose to drag hip-hop through a variety of music ranging from the smooth and tasteful to the dreadful bounds of loneliness and despair. Such is the case on “Mission Control,” where the duo mixes a daunting out of this world echoing behind a thumping drum-and-synth combo all while an eerie deep voice proclaims, “They say you have visions that your life flashes before your eyes, that all your dreams come true.” Weird cannot even begin to explain it.

     If a hip-hop record label ever landed on the moon and built a skyscraper, “Earthwalker” would coincidentally serve as the building’s elevator music, an outer-spacey and funky yet oddly smooth combination of synths and percussion. And “Life’s Endless Cycle: PT. 3 ? Evolutions (Through Past and Present is Infinite and Endless Space?), coated with a thumping bass and spooky vocal samples, opens up somewhere towards the middle of the track to reveal a portrait of open space and a vast landscape where musical notes dance as though they were as free to mingle amongst one another but naturally create a beautiful and mystical pattern.

     The true talent of The Opus, however, is their knack for leading listeners through a maze-like jungle of instrumental treats without allowing the beat to become stagnant or loopy all the way throughout. The final three tracks of “Breathing Lessons” clearly exhibit their ability to switch gears multiple times throughout a single track with a cornucopia of instruments, samples, and tones. “Symbiotic” utilizes an interesting sample of different people breathing throughout different parts of the track, while “The Strange Adventures of Mr. Happy” plays like an introduction to all the different elements of producing, with pianos, strings, dirty percussions, and even whistling sounds finding a rightful place amongst the music before the song rounds out. Even the ten-minute long “The Addiction,” which almost sounds like it could serve as the closing credits at the local Cineplex fails to grow tired or stale and gracefully rounds out the album.

     Several tracks do have their snags, as “Life’s Endless Cycle: PT. 1″ begins sounding more and more like daunting chords set over an adult movie scene as the song persists, and “Isis,” unfortunately, finds the pair contributing an odd opening beat that sounds more like a pre-teen ballet recital and less like a hip-hop affair (although the one emcee effort does come here with Lord 360 fitting in soundly).

      The Opus create a rare breed instrumental extravaganza that teaches more than just “breathing lessons” as this talented twosome snatch the ability to create art back from the emcees with an album that would sound just as at home over a candle-lit dinner as it would over a dramatic science-fiction movie. “Breathing Lessons” is a weird, spaced-out alternative to the souled-up, looped-up, three minute and forty-five second instrumentals that hip-hop has gotten a little too used to…..

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