Album of the Day: The Olympians, “The Olympians”

If you take their press release at face value, The Olympians began with a recurring dream of mythic proportion. One night, while touring Greece with soul ensemble Lee Fields and the Expressions, keyboardist Toby Pazner was visited in his sleep by a toga-clad, curly-haired gentleman who told him to return to New York and build a “Temple of Sound” to honor the music of Ancient Greece. After the dream persisted night after night, Pazner gave in. When he got home, he began amassing a collection of top-notch gear and a who’s-who of NYC soul session players—not terribly hard for a key member of the Daptone universe—and began constructing his homage.

While certain logistical obstacles make it difficult to verify Pazner’s dream, the group’s origin myth is rendered moot by the radiance and gravity of their fully instrumental debut album. Many of the Olympians play in groups held together by a powerful human voice—they’ve backed Fields, Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley—and part of the thrill here is seeing how they adapt to that lack of an easy focal point. In the process, they’ve built a series of highly-nuanced arrangements that remain engaging even as they hypnotize, and listening to the Olympians feels akin to floating on a salty sea.

While these songs all feature booming horns, it’s the addition of more subtle instruments, like bells, harp, vibes and a smattering of guitar, that give each song (all of which are named after a planet or an element of Greek mythology, natch) distinct personalities and character. “Mars” features a harp and bass combination that evokes a mellower version of Flying Lotus’ “Drips/Auntie’s Harp,” while “Mercury’s Odyssey” is a more up-tempo jaunt bound together by a thicket of guitars and keys. And even though we never hear a human voice, the album sneaks in a handful of terrific solos, from the flute on opening track “Sirens of Jupiter” to the stately trumpet on “Venus,” to serve a similar role. While the Olympians may have originally taken shape halfway around the world, their debut—held together by an overflowing well of virtuosic talent—hits home.

Max Savage Levenson

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