It should be clear to all that Yeti was the most underrated of the 1970s-era cryptozoological mega-creatures. Bigfoot (aka Sasquatch) hobnobbed with Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man, on prime time television. The Loch Ness Monster presumably had some kind of mysterious underwater lair and also had that cameo in the Police’s “Synchronicity II”. Yeti, though, is ultimately just a big snow creature. As “Bumble”, Yeti saved Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer and his friends, and that’s great, but that was nearly a decade before the mid-‘70s mania for these creatures.
Perhaps this is why El Michels Affair have named their new album Yeti Season. To give Yeti its due. No matter what led to the title, Yeti Season is a soulful modern-day mood music album with enough twists and turns to keep things interesting from start to finish.
Leon Michels, the founder of El Michels Affair, has been an in-demand performer, producer, and record label owner for more than 20 years. He has recorded with Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Lee Fields and the Expressions, and the Menahan Street Band. Michels’ production credits cover a spectrum from Aloe Blacc to Dr. John to Chicano Batman, and the biggest names in rap have sampled his music. He can also be seen playing saxophone in Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s much-talked-about NPR Tiny Desk concert in 2019.
El Michels Affair, who released their debut album, Sounding Out the City, in 2005, represents Michels’ concept of “cinematic soul”: widescreen, adventurous music that could indeed make for effective film scores. El Michels Affairs’ albums have included tributes to Isaac Hayes (Walk on By) and Wu-Tang Clan (Enter the 37th Chamber and Return to the 37th Chamber).
Yeti Season opens with an Ennio-like introduction to “Unathi”, though the song quickly moves in a different direction, toward Mumbai, as Piya Malik begins singing in Hindi. The second track “Sha Na Na” has an ethereal 21st-century soul vibe, with another fine-featured vocalist, Shannon Wise of the Shacks.
The following two tracks, “Ala Vida” and “Fazed Out”, both exemplify the “cinematic soul” concept that El Michels Affair embodies. “Fazed Out”, in particular, has a processional feel to it: it’s easy to imagine an orchestral version of this piece playing in the background as a huge ceremony is about to begin in a science fiction movie. Or rock it up a bit, and “Fazed Out” could be one of the transitional pieces in a sidelong prog-rock epic, the section in which the protagonist is moving through time and space from one transcendental moment to another.
“Fazed Out” feels like a template for some of the other instrumentals on the album, which also have an “on the march” feel to them, such as “Perfect Harmony” and album-closer, “Last Blast”, but El Michels Affair find something distinctive in each track. “Lesson Learned”, a quieter track featuring eerie wordless vocals, takes a more ruminative approach to the quest.
Malik returns on “Murkit Gem”, a pop song that is part Bollywood, part new wave, and all fun. Malik returns two more times on the album, on “Dhuaan” and “Zaharila”, and each of these moments is welcome. While it might be sheer coincidence, “Dhuaan” contains a spoken word sample of a young woman laughing, which is reminiscent of a similar sample on “Viva La Raza” by Los Lobos side project Latin Playboys. While Latin Playboys only existed for a few albums, their sound was very much a lo-fi variation of the adventurous sounds El Michels Affair pursues on Yeti Season.
In the final analysis, perhaps the only real question is, “Would Yeti like Yeti Season?” I am thinking Yeti would be delighted.