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Gospel For A New Century: The Sublime Distortion Of Yves Tumor
Michael Appouh , April 2nd, 2020 08:34

Yves Tumor’s magnetic personality takes centre stage on new album Heaven To A Tortured Mind, finds Michael Appouh

There’s an excerpt that Yves Tumor quotes on ‘Medicine Burn’, the second track on Heaven To A Tortured Mind, taken from Hunter S. Thompson’s Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie. The letter, written in the wake of the 1992 US General Election, includes a frightening description of the devil, a warped, terrifying thing with “seven heads and 600 teeth” that Thompson says is, “a nasty thing to feel getting hold of your leg when you’re trying to stay afloat in the lake of fire”. Therein lies the heart of Yves Tumor’s artistry. They possess a stunning, depraved magnetism that pulls you closer the more you try to resist.

Sean Bowie – AKA Shan Bowie, AKA Rahel Ali, AKA Teams, AKA Yves Tumor – has always made difficult music. Not difficult to enjoy, but to reckon with. The precarious dance they are able to do between deeply soulful, humanistic music and aggressively opaque, nasty, rough noise makes each of their projects a challenge. One moment your surroundings seem to reveal themselves, the next you’re launched into mirages again, rooms full of mirrors that stretch and distort things you ought to recognise. On Heaven To A Tortured Mind, Tumor harnesses their relentless curiosity to test the boundaries of rock and noise – and reinvents what we expect from both in the process.

The phenomenal 2018 album Safe In The Hands Of Love hinted toward Tumor’s burgeoning role as capital-R-Rockstar, with twisty alt-rock anthems like ‘Noid’ and ‘Licking An Orchid’ some of their most palatable offerings to date. Though they've always maintained that same slippery charm present on the self-released tape Experiencing The Deposit Of Faith, where they transmuted spirituality into ambient soundscapes, and the avant-garde, Throbbing Gristle-esque experimentation on Serpent Music; this latest record is a full graduation into bleary-eyed stardom.

From a personal standpoint, Tumor offers us very little interiority – even their real name remains something of a mystery – but their enigmatic presence and cult-like following precede them on this record. Folded into the idea of Yves Tumor lies a persona that evades realism in favour of fantasy, allowing imagination to bloom. References to the rustic god Pan in the track ‘Romanticist’ and in the music video for ‘Gospel For A New Century’ confirm their own mythic capacity as both an object and catalyst of desire. And if the contemporary figure of the Rockstar is anything, it is most certainly a modern day deity.

One of the abiding motifs of an Yves Tumor record is intense, almost spiritual transformation. The track ‘Medicine Burn’ leads us out of the sultry vocals and decadent horns of album opener ‘Gospel For A New Century’ and launches the listener into a visceral, charged battle between guitar and drums, each fighting for supremacy, with Tumor’s lyrics barely rising above it all. The words are almost spat out, gasping and exasperated: “Carry me away into your spirit”. Heaven To A Tortured Mind is not hesitant about the fact that it wants your body.

‘Kerosene!’ upends the primacy of the record’s themes and turns out a sensual ballad in duet with Diana Gordon, the two going back and forth declaring their commitment to retaining the other’s desire at their own risk. Their mutual self-immolation transcends corporeal forms in favour of more fantastical, timeless obsessions, asking each other, “Can you be my fantasy?” and answering, “I can be anything”. When they finally do collide, the result is a crackling, unyielding bonfire of a chorus.

‘Romanticist’ and ‘Dream Palette’ mark the middle of the album and perhaps the most deliberate signal of the record’s overall intent. The former’s boyish chorus of “I wanna keep you close right by my side, I swear you got me hypnotised” builds into a harsh, oppressive wall of noise, before detonating a thundering, guttural feature from Julia Cumming and a grooving drum line. The album’s dual themes of transformation and magnetism are here immediate and consuming. ‘Identity Trade’ starts as this shoegazey, languid soft rock song that suddenly brings in a gaggle of disparate solos out of nowhere. On ‘Hasdallen Lights’, a leering, looping, vaporous synth track asks “What are you running from?”, “What do you miss?”, “What do you crave?”, “How do you feel?”, each question beckoning us towards the irresistible.

There are moments where the threat of relying on the cult of personality Tumor has built up rears its head. The infinitely catchy glam rock track ‘Super Stars’ prioritises come-hither Jagger-isms and seems to abandon the probing soundscapes Tumor has become most known for. But the record balances its scales with the amazing ‘Asteroid Blues’, a track that has a wicked, almost procreant riff that takes you deeper into Tumor’s twisted propriety. ‘Folie Imposée’, too, is a dreamy clash of breakbeat and alternative rock and ‘Strawberry Privilege’ is reminiscent of a prescient psych pop song plucked from the '80s charts and blended with Tumor’s uniquely distorted sense of the sublime.

The album’s closing tune, ‘A Greater Love’, is a massively exciting foray into funk and soul from Tumor, highlighting the well of rhythm and groove they can dip into at any moment. It’s a glittering exclamation point on the record, and a statement of intent from the Tennessee-born artist. How easily they can transubstantiate whole genres into core elements and still leave space for experimentation speaks to Tumor’s lithe inventiveness. “You were sent from above,” Tumor whispers. On Heaven To A Tortured Mind, we may have to consider if they are talking about themselves.