Yves Tumor review – a star-making statement of intent | Pop and rock


The last time I saw Sean Bowie, AKA Yves Tumor, they were shirtless and writhing on stage, wreathed in dry ice. Their tall frame paced across a strobing backdrop as they belted out a lithe mix of experimental noise and nonchalant spoken word to a small, devoted moshpit of headbanging fans. The rest of us looked on, curious and somewhat bemused at this singular figure producing ear-splitting sounds as we waited for the main act, house producer Jacques Greene, to come on.

That was in 2017 at the Electric Brixton. Five years on, Yves Tumor is the defiant headliner, and that mini-moshpit of fans has turned into the entire room. Tonight’s show had been scheduled once more for Electric Brixton but was upgraded to the Troxy, which has double the capacity. A hushed buzz of anticipation sweeps round the art deco space before Bowie steps out in an orb of light in front of two vast plinths housing the band. They have ample reason to treat this show like a victory lap. It’s just one stop on a mammoth and largely sold-out US and European tour in support of the performer’s fourth LP, Heaven to a Tortured Mind (2020) and last year’s EP The Asymptotical World.

Bowie released their debut album, Serpent Music, in 2016 to critical intrigue. Teaching themselves music production to counter the boredom of growing up in Tennessee, they later moved to Leipzig and became immersed in the German city’s high-tempo experimental techno club scene. Recorded after spending three years there, Serpent Music is shot through with the dual influences of its nightlife and the American popular songwriting Bowie grew up with. It’s a record of atmospheric R&B with an experimental edge that sees melodies float over snatches of screams, whispered incantations and guttural basslines.

Yet it was their next release, 2018’s Safe in the Hands of Love, that would catapult Yves Tumor to widespread acclaim. Pitchfork called the record a “benchmark in experimental music” for its freewheeling, omnivorous approach to genre – one given coherency through Bowie’s confident baritone voice. The album pitched them as an auteur with a remarkable ear and capacity to traverse everything from wonky pop ( Noid) to trip-hop (Licking an Orchid) and fractal breakbeats (Lifetime). Serpent Music earned Bowie comparisons to British avant-garde songwriter Dean Blunt for their delivery and often indecipherable lyrics, and to ostentatious rapper and Kanye West collaborator Mykki Blanco; Safe in the Hands of Love was so fluid as to be uncategorisable, closer to the shapeshifting flamboyance of David Bowie, as well as Prince.

Yves Tumor and band at Troxy, London.
Yves Tumor and band at Troxy, London. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Tonight, Sean Bowie is dressed the part of carnal rock god: cut-out, skintight leather ensemble and jaunty hat perched above a face daubed in white clowning makeup. Each movement is languorous and intuitive: a hand placed on the hip and a leg kicked aside as they launch into latest single, Jackie – a late-80s pop homage distorted through hints of My Bloody Valentine’s tooth-rattling guitars – before hip-thrusting into the blistering instrumentals of Licking an Orchid. A group of fans standing next to me sing along, word perfect, to every track.

In fact, the recent releases played tonight feel like Bowie’s most radio-friendly and commercially viable tracks to date. There is the stadium rock of Kerosene!, which begins deceptively quietly before the full glam rock explosion of its chorus guitar solo; the horn-fuelled fanfare of Gospel for a New Century, channelling Prince in its ecstatic phrasing; and the infectious funk of Romanticist. All are primed to get a live crowd moving.

If the songs are hook-laden and spacious enough to fill a big room, so is Bowie’s presence. This might be a mid-capacity venue but they are playing it like a stadium. Fiery instrumental solos punctuate the seamless flow of tracks while Bowie cavorts in front of the crowd. The bass of the kick drum is almost deafening, but the gravelly vocals cut through, turning lines such as “some call it torture, baby I enjoy it” into a coy invitation. As the tracks peak, Bowie has the crowd in their gloved hands, pushing the arc of each song into a shredding instrumental climax before bringing the dynamic back down to the conspiratorial intimacy of a whisper. It’s a rollercoaster of a ride.

This might be a stadium-worthy show, but it isn’t aiming for technical perfection or choreographed movement. At points it even feels like Bowie is pushing their voice to crack and break while shouting through the lyrics and gliding across the stage, in turn encouraging the audience to let go of their inhibitions – which they do. We are left wanting more after a swift 75-minute set, but one thing is certain as they saunter off stage: Yves Tumor’s star is born.

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