Lions are one of New York’s most enjoyably slinky, mysterious, psychedelically danceable bands. Their specialty is Ethiopiques, the otherworldly, haunting mix of ancient folk melodies, Afrobeat and American jazz that originated in the 60s and exploded onto the global stage when Mulatu Astatke got popular back in the 90s and early zeros. The group of six Israelis and one American have an amazing debut ep streaming at Bandcamp and a show headlining at Barbes tonight, July 17 at 11 PM.
The album’s opening number, Aynotche Terabuslinky has that classic camelwalking Ethiopian triplet rhythm, with brightly wary minor-key riffage from the horns over resonant minor-key organ from Dor Heled, bandleader/guitarist Nadav Peled holding steady to a terse, circular riff as Tamir Shmerling’s bass and Eran Fink’s drums anchor the groove. Peled caps it off with a deliciously spiky, trebly, reverbtoned solo. His blend of 60s psychedelic rock and Ethiopian phrasing is distinctive and intruguing: you never know exactly where he’s going to go with it.
A dynamic horn intro from trumpeter Wayne Tucker, alto saxophonist (and noted big band leader) Eyal Vilner and baritone saxophonist Eden Bareket kick off the brooding second number, Yematibela Wef. Vilner’s pensively bending phrases and Bareket’s purposeful spirals keep the enigmatic vibe going over a hypnotically swaying beat. The best track here, simply called Lions, takes a classic, creepily chromatic bati riff and builds a mighty anthem out of it, with biting horn harmonies, some clever tradeoffs between guitar and organ, Heled taking centerstage with his menacingly swirling, rippling lines. A straightforward Tucker solo takes it up to a mighty, stomping peak.
Peled makes snaky surf rock out of Nagatti Si Jedha with his pinging, incisive lines, building to a darkly climactic, cinematic theme with more than a hint of Bollywood; Heled’s surrealistically pulsing organ solo might be the best one on the whole album. Le’b has a jauntily swinging horn intro and some bracingly offcenter harmonies over a fat roots reggae groove. The ep winds up with Zelel Zelel, lit up with yet more of Peled’s stingingly psychedelic, nimble riffwork.
One of the last recordings made at Williamsburg’s legendary Excello studios, the album has a warm analog feel. Best debut of 2015? There’s nothing that’s come out so far this year that can touch this. If you’re going to Park Slope tonight, you might want to get there early before the back room fills up.