In the past two or three years, the instrumental hip-hop scene has become a pretty interesting place to focus one’s gaze every few months. There are the usual suspects like Alchemist and Madlib, who drop unused beats on the public for curious consumption—but there’s also the left-leaning field, populated by artists like Dabrye, Flying Lotus, and Blue Sky Black Death, who actively challenge the idea of instrumental LPs as merely the home for homeless beats. These artists view the instrumental hip-hop format as a place where the beatmaker can flourish, where the lack of demand for an MC’s performance provides space for experimentation and expansion. Hectic Zeniths, essentially the one-man project of math teacher Adam Prince, represents a three-year journey towards the center of this ever-growing reality. And with the aid of live drum kits (Yetti), guitars (Dave Cohen), and violins (Patrick Bailey), Prince has managed to craft one of the most interesting unions between beat-oriented production and early 2000s downtempo production to date. Throughout this album, lines can be drawn from Lotus to Blockhead, or Kanye West to BSBD, and at a taut 30 minutes, it’s unique in the sort of repetition it not only encourages but demands.
Most of these tracks are built on Prince’s gorgeously melodic piano, upon which he builds all manner of subtle synthesizing, abstracted vocal samples, and layers of the aforementioned feature players. It’s an awesomely sort of cross-scene sound he’s created here: At times, Hectic Zeniths feels like a popular form of modern classical music, only to suddenly break into a roaring electric guitar accompanied by bluesy drum patterns. The mood consistently evokes that of the Dali-like cover art, a variety of different eras and concepts coalescing into one unexpectedly incongruous whole. There are even tracks that come close to something like pop music, chief among them “I Might Drown”. Over a piano line that seems blatantly aimed at fans of modern piano-pop arrives a variety of beats and subtle production layers that enhance that feeling. Meanwhile, Prince provides chopped-up vocals that bring to mind James Blake’s decidedly un-pop attempts at electronic soul music—something like Daniel Powter through the lens of a deconstructionist outsider. Trust me when I say this is beyond a good thing.
Hectic Zeniths does have its small string of issues, though I’m not sure how solvable they are. Some are minute: Tracks like “Save Me” or “Then and Now” provide a sort of sterile, pieced-together atmosphere that belittles the illness of the actual arrangements. Others are more up for debate but ostensibly more obvious than that, mainly Heretic Zeniths’ lack of any one thing to really grab hold of you and insist that it be listened to. For all its charms, a large part of of this album either feels similar to itself or as though it should have been the backing for some video game or film not yet written. Without the sort of context offered from listening to a a soundtrack to a familiar project, this stuff can feel somewhat separate from a bigger picture at times. The “Josie” interlude provides meaning to the pervading melancholy with a voicemail awkwardly attempting to change the rules of a romantic relationship, but it’s a moment that really only has power in the moment and sort of drifts into the ether. Obviously that’s slightly picky, but these issues are quite evident, especially on such a brief release that relies on a fairly similar albeit adventurous sound throughout. I could have used more of the hooky playing provided by “An Empty Shell” or “Zeitschtichen” (though much of my attraction to that latter track is rooted in its similarities to the melody of Adele’s “Hometown Glory”).
All nitpicking aside, Hectic Zeniths is definitely a mighty strong entry into 2012’s instrumental/downtempo field. It’s a very naturally enjoyable listen—and it’s much easier to, say, enjoy with an import beer than to find these previously mentioned flaws.
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