Album review: El Michels Affair -‘Yeti Season’: Big Crown kingpin proves he’s a 10th dan at soundtrack funk magic

The Breakdown


EL MICHELS AFFAIR is the musical aesthetic of Big Crown’s Leon Michel, a man whose veins run with crate-dug 7″s on obscure regional labels from the late Fifties through to the mid-Seventies, caught in an oxbow lake of the grander expanse of music, hurried by en route to other glories, not at the time maybe blessed by the touch of Lady Luck in finding the audiences and wider success so many of them richly deserved; but oh! what music, the main line, the real deal, and in an aesthetic and style – production valve-bright, guitars untrammeled by wizardry, the soul of soul and funk and soundtracks, if you like. And a music without end that doesn’t at all date and which once heard, forever smitten.

The band have only released some five albums in the 16 or so years since their brilliant debut, Sounding Out The City; that contained gems like “Too Late To Turn Back” and indeed set a course for a future past of absolute quality and timelessness. That album could’ve been made at any point after say, 1966; and it’s fresh as a funky daisy.

Indeed, El Michels Affair have never looked over their shoulder once since; and with Leon co-founding Big Crown in 2016, El Michels Affair have gone from strength to strength, through the psychedelic movie funk excellence of Return To The 37th Chamber and last year’s essential homage to European movie sounds of times past, Adult Themes. Which you need, frankly.

And now they’re back, after rumours swirled like the cryptozoological being of the title, with Yeti Season; everything great about the band’s aesthetic – and more.

Whereas Adult Themes played out as the soundtrack to the best Cinemascope release made on the Continent in 1970 still yet to be filmed, Yeti Season casts its gaze further east, to the minarets and the cradle of civilisation, to Persia, India and points more exotic, following in the cutting edge of crate-diggers who’ve uncovered astonishing nuggets of Turkish funk, Bollywood psych and more in recent years. It’s also a deep, beautiful eternal music, and one ripe for new recording life.

Actually, the concept for such a record has been busy seeding for a while now: the album’s opening track, the brilliant, phasing psych-funk Hindi lilt “Unathi” came out as a 7″ as far back as 2018. On it, Leon united with the voice behind Big Crown act 79.5, Piya Malik, and the chemistry sparked. In dulcet tones Piya urges us to strive together towards progress, her voice as caressing as the funk is tight, the riffs taut.

Leon explains just what an influence Piya had on the new album’s direction: “When Piya started singing in Hindi, she had a different voice, a different tone. I knew we had to do something together.” And so she appears on four of the album’s eleven tracks.

There’s also a spot for Shannon Wise of Brooklyn’s lovely The Shacks, a band lost in the Valley of the Dolls of a beautiful girl-group pop sound; she takes on “Sha Na Na”, which came out as a double A with “Dhuaan”, another track helmed by Piya, both appearing on 7″ last August.

For the record, and since we’ve arrived at this place chronologically rather than in strict album order, we’ve embedded “Dhuaan” down at the bottom for you. It’s a superb, overdriven Bosphorus groove, all fuzz breaks and loose snares and crisp, lost-soundtrack genius. Intense riffs weave and maze. It breaks to whispers, shouts, mirthful spoken word interlude full of laughter – if you know “Erotica”, by Rita, think that. Pushed to the far end of the Med and way beyond. That’s right. It couldn’t possibly exist outside the record collections of say, Andy Votel and David Holmes. And yet somehow, thanks to the magic of El Michels Affair, it does.

So what is Yeti Season? Big Crown say it’s maybe more of a feeling than an actual time of year. It’s a record with some serious edge, admittedly all guised for a fine retro dancefloor; an album of persistence in the face of the pandemic odds, since it was topped out during lockdown, no easy task. But it is also a hugely delicious one.

Leon Michels of El Michels Affair, photographed by Richard Swift

So, to that album then; side A begins in the grand Hindi fuzz of “Unathi” (see above), follows on into a sweeter place with the languid so-cool of “Sha Na Na”, which sees The Shacks’ Shannon descend from late-Sixties’ nirvana to grace us with a pretty hook, taking the title and swathing it in luxury, spliced with a lazy melody shuffling over retro-recorded, clicky bass and mournful organ. It’s got Gallic cool. It smokes a lot, but you adore it anyway. In another universe it’s the theme from whichever film placed top at Cannes in 1969. Wow.

“Ala Vida” is made out of all the right things; staccato chords, big brass, sweeping shimmer, a passage in some Italian movie wherein a beautiful white Sixties’ Alfa Romeo is gliding along mountain roads; your passenger, blonde, perfect teeth. It’s a song of time when there was technicolour luxury. “Fazed Out” begins with a brilliant sitar type riff in the seven-note Indian scale, which is joined by some hip-grinding bass and brass, climbs even higher into brass, organ, swirling, backwards melody. Strong.

The side ends with “Murkit Gem”, the final single preceding the album release, itself released in mid-January. And whaddya know? We’ve embedded this too, down the end there, because we’re kind souls like that. Piya is once more our vocal guiding light for a Bollywood fuzz-riffin’ groove, a cheeky rhythmic swagger, production values entirely on point for a lost 7″ side; Piya chants and then lofts in reverb, that hook embedding itself with its yearning. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s a soundtracky coda of Sixties’ sound effects. What’s happening in this film? You find yourself asking.

Flip your record – you will buy the vinyl, right, but save one for me if you would – and we’re into “Lesson Learned”; the slowest of drum workouts dropping us into a massed chorale of harmonies and flute, the most precise and glorious kitsch of the best of every soundtrack ever somehow captured with absolute precision. It makes you wonder if, say as if the 1958 Plymouth Fury of Stephen King’s Christine, Leon hasn’t got a beautiful classic car somewhere whose radio automatically dials to a station out there in the ether that doesn’t actually exist, from which he finds tunes this excellent.

“Dhuaan” follows – once more, see above and as it happens below, if you wish to play it; and that’s bookended by the bright, crisp stomp of “Perfect Harmony”, which needs that odd stretched screen ratio you get in some Tarantino and Sergio Leone films; reality distended and warped, better for its slight surreality. “Silver Lining” is a perspiring, sexy odyssey, built around the central pillar of a tautly plucked string instrument. That’s joined by just a little swooping retrotronica and a masterclass in sweeping up and down the piano keyboard, letting it all go and giving it everything it needs. Where are we in your personal film? I’d suggest that we’re somewhere triumphant. Maybe you, the hero, have conquered all.

“Zaharila” sees Piya take one last turn at the microphone, a track with a gentle tickle of wah-wah, a little TexMex spaghetti western brass, a yearning vocal turn. It does that thing that too few records do anymore, and over a declamatory spoken word passage in which Piya becomes refracted through hallucinogenic echo, it speeds up and up towards its trippy flute climax.

And your personally tailored movie of an album itself climaxes in “Last Blast”, which does everything you need the closing reel to do; a sway of perfect arrangement for widescreen brass, flute, percussion, piano, you’re on the freeway into town now, the sun hot in that trilling flute. I’m pretty sure you saved the day, you know.

Yeti Season? Well, pretty stunning. Leon, who honed his craft touring with Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings and Wu-Tang Clan, clearly understands this music – no, scrap that, he’s a 10th dan; an absolute master of the craft. Slip Yeti Season onto the decks, you have the most diverse, exciting, retro-soundtrack waiting there for you; there maybe no one better at this kind of the thing in the world right now. One moment R.D. Burman with Piya his Lata Mangeshkar, another Lalo Schifrin, another Piero Piccioni; all are here, ten short films in themselves, these tracks, scenes from a film so ace you have to make it. In your head. Pick yourself up Adult Themes, grab a giant bucket of popcorn, make it a double bill.

Absurdly brilliant. Buy.

El Michels Affair’s Yeti Season will be released by Big Crown on March 26th in an entirely sexy limited box set, containing the album on opaque green vinyl and containing a 50-page children’s book inspired by the album and a bonus blue vinyl 7″; there’s also standard vinyl, CD and digital, and it’s a necessary pre-order to get placed right here, right now.

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