There are some critics who say that you can’t make a good guitar record that can maintain substance and creative value in 2018, but my gut tells me that they haven’t listened toHillcrest, the acclaimed new record from Austin based singer/songwriter Jonathon Zemek. In songs like “I Want It All,” Zemek takes the concept behind his new progressive album and injects it with a sexy guitar lick that is reminiscent of the jazz-rock experimentation of 70s bands like Blood, Sweat and Tears. Amongst the melting pot of soundscapes and contemplative diatribes that Hillcrest brings to the table, “I Want It All” stands out as one of the more rhythmic and catchy, but it isn’t the only reason why the American indie underground is heralding this album as one of the best of its time.
Hillcrest is a multilayered story centering on a character named Peter, who through trauma, strife and a couple of bad decisions learns the meaning of kinship and selflessness over the course of 12 stylishly composed songs. Peter isn’t all the different from most of us in his search for self-awareness, and in his chaotic tale of triumph over circumstance listeners are often asked to relate their own experiences to the protagonist’s. Forgiveness is the primary theme in Hillcrest, but it isn’t the sole motivation for Peter’s adventure into the cruel unknown. It’s his desire to understand why we must forgive that really drives him towards love, acceptance and maturation – not unlike the human race itself.
Jonathon Zemek and the cast of characters he assembled to help him record Hillcrest (including but not limited to vocalists Guy Forsyth, Malford Milligan, Andrea Lindzey and Roderick Sanford in the unforgettable role of Peter’s father) pose a lot of really important questions about civilization in this record, but none are as scathing as the songs that center around ego and righteousness. “Death of Me” is a prime example of lyrical existentialism when it isn’t twisted up in metaphors; we’re learning about Peter through what he perceives to be a third party’s eyes. What we witness is raw and unfiltered, but anyone who has ever spent a day in real life already knows that this world is anything but predictable or comforting in nature.
In the insulated catharsis of “Love,” Hillcrest’s concluding track, we find ourselves coming full circle with Peter and Zemek, who seem to become a singular force as the album carries on. After listening to this record from start to finish for the very first time, I found myself studying Zemek’s previous work to see if all his material was as broadly imaginative and conceptual – only to find that he’s been saving this side of his creative profile for his solo career. His artistic evolution has been staggering, and by the looks of Hillcrest I would have to assume that he’s only getting started in what will become an inarguably iconic professional run. I highly recommend music fans of all genres check out this album and see what he’s got in store for us moving forward, but something tells me this is but the first of many reviews I’ll be writing about this exciting young artist.