by Jason McCullum
One of the greatest parts of moving to Chicago has been the ease of exposure to new music. Just about everyone I interact with lately can offer up an artist or band that I have likely never been exposed to. While these recommendations are not always mind-blowing, most of the time they offer at least one defining quality that helps broaden my scope of music being made in the now. Enter El Michels Affair.
The latest project from Brooklyn producer, Leon Michels, helps him work distinctly, combining the wide array of genres that he has previously worked with. Michels has produced directly for artists such as Chicano Batman, The Carters, and Aloe Blacc and has been sampled by the likes of Travis Scott, Jay-Z, and Kid Cudi. Yeti Season marks the third release under the El Michels Affair moniker and follows up Adult Themes, the first studio album from the project in nearly 15 years. Despite likely flying under several consumers’ radars, this album manages to pack a lot into just 38 minutes, combining sounds from all of Michels past projects. Elements of funk, soul, hip-hop, and even psychedelic music are sprinkled throughout the project, offering something for everyone.
Much of the time, this quality works in the album’s favor by jumping from genre to genre, sometimes even in one track. For instance, the opening cut “Unathi” has a nice mood setter of a chorus with some subtle synths laying behind washy guitar leads and crisp drums. Yet the song occasionally shifts tempo and has brief 2-bar breakdowns that tease the beginning of something more energetic before returning to its laid-back tempo..
The following “Sha Na Na” is a slow down for the record However, it is still a pleasant listen, specifically when added auxiliary and mallet-based percussion instruments are introduced. Things regain defining qualities on the song “Ala Vida”, a song that sounds vintage and matches the 50s aesthetic album cover. The muted horns and old-timey piano are incredibly pretty on their own, but the presentation of them in such a choppy melody with such lo-fi drums makes this an instant head bopper. It is hard to tell if the tune gets the toes tapping due to the jazz-oriented instrumental presentation or the undeniably hip-hop-inspired beat. Either way, it is one of the strongest tunes on the record.
Things turn dreamier from there with the following song. “Lesson Learned” is a pretty simple tune with some deep voices juxtaposed by plucky and bright guitars. “Perfect Harmony”, however, is probably the most unique song on the entire record in terms of genre and instrumental blends. Acoustic guitars and a light mandolin lead the majority of the track with a late Simon & Garfunkel aesthetic, bringing forth some quite beautiful and truly classic folk instrumentation. Deeper into the track, the soundscape turns into one of the purest psychedelic melodies with some pretty harsh drums and fuzzy synth leads. It is a pretty impressive genre fusion, especially considering that the tune runs only slightly over the two-minute mark.
The album steers into a close with potentially the two funkiest songs on the record in terms of tonal quality. “Zaharila” presents horns and guitars that were scattered across the rest of the record, but this time they are delivered in a more jazz-centric structure. Finally, the closing song “Last Blast” is a strong finish for the album, delivering melodies that are equal parts danceable and experimental, despite a somewhat anticlimactic finish.
Delving into this record on a song-by-song analysis was not my intended route for this review, but upon re-listening to the album I think Yeti Season warranted this style of writeup. The diverse blend of genres from track to track is the best thing this record has going for it. While an eclectic album is by no means an incredibly creative venture in this day and age, El Michels Affair manages to blend sounds organically and thoughtfully. Because of this, Michels manages to not confuse casual listeners while also providing subtle sound fusions to give more hardcore consumers continued surprises. All in all, despite its flaws, there is a lot to enjoy on this LP and a lot to look forward to. Here’s hoping that these tunes are played live sooner rather than later.