JThe last time I saw Sean Bowie, aka Yves Tumor, they were shirtless and writhing on stage, wrapped in dry ice. Their large frame paced a strobe background as they belted out a supple mix of experimental noise and nonchalant lyrics to a devoted little moshpit of headbanging fans. The rest of us watched, curious and somewhat puzzled by this singular figure churning out deafening sounds as we waited for the main act, in-house producer Jacques Greene, to come.
It was in 2017 at the Electric Brixton. Five years later, Yves Tumor is the defiant headliner, and this mini-moshpit of fans has turned into an entire hall. Tonight’s show had once again been scheduled for Electric Brixton but has been upgraded to the Troxy, which has double the capacity. A hushed buzz of anticipation sweeps through the art deco space before Bowie steps out in an orb of light past two vast plinths housing the group. They have plenty of reason to treat this show as a victory lap. It’s just one leg of a gigantic and largely sold-out American and European tour to support the performer’s fourth LP, Heaven for a tortured mind (2020) and last year’s EP The asymptotic world.
Bowie released his first album, snake music, in 2016 to the critical plot. Teaching themselves music production to counter the boredom of growing up in Tennessee, they later moved to Leipzig and immersed themselves in the German city’s experimental techno club scene. Recorded after spending three years there, snake music is crossed by the double influence of its nightlife and the popular American writing with which Bowie grew up. It’s an atmospheric R&B record with an experimental edge that sees the melodies float over snatches of screams, whispered incantations and guttural bass lines.
However, it was their next release, that of 2018 Sure in hands of lovewhich would catapult Yves Tumor to widespread success. Fork called the record a “benchmark in experimental music” for its free-spirited, omnivorous approach to the genre – a consistency given by Bowie’s confident baritone voice. The album showcased them as a songwriter with a remarkable ear and ability to cut through everything from goofy pop (Noid) to trip-hop (Licking an Orchid) and fractal breakbeats (Lifetime). snake music earned Bowie comparisons with avant-garde British songwriter Dean Blunt for their delivery and often indecipherable lyrics, and with ostentatious rapper and Kanye West collaborator Mykki Blanco; Sure in hands of love was so fluid it was unclassifiable, closer to the shifting flamboyance of David Bowie, as well as Prince.
Tonight, Sean Bowie is dressed like the god of carnal rock: a cut-out, form-fitting leather ensemble and a flippant hat perched above a face smeared in white clown makeup. Every move is languid and intuitive: one hand on hip and one leg spread as they launch into latest single, Jackie – a late ’80s pop homage distorted by teeth-chattering guitar notes from My Bloody Valentine – before launching into the scorching instrumentals of Licking an Orchid. A group of fans standing next to me sing, perfect word, on every track.
In fact, the recent releases playing tonight sound like Bowie’s most radio-friendly and commercially viable tracks to date. There’s the stadium rock of Kerosene!, which begins deceptively quiet before the full glam rock outburst of its chorus guitar solo; the horn-fueled marching band of Gospel for a New Century, channeling Prince in his ecstatic phrasing; and the infectious funk of Romanticist. All are ready to rock a live crowd.
If the songs are hook-laden and spacious enough to fill a large room, so is Bowie’s presence. It might be a medium capacity venue, but they play it like a stadium. Fiery instrumental solos punctuate the continuous flow of tracks as Bowie frolics past the crowd. The bass from the kick drum is almost deafening, but the rocky vocals kick in, turning lines like “some call it torture, baby I like it” into a coy invitation. As the tracks climax, Bowie has the crowd in his gloved hands, pushing each song’s arc into a jagged instrumental climax before bringing the dynamic back to the conspiratorial intimacy of a whisper. It’s a one-turn roller coaster.
It may be a stadium-worthy spectacle, but it’s not about technical perfection or choreographed movement. At times, it even feels like Bowie is pushing his voice to crack and break while screaming through the lyrics and gliding across the stage, in turn encouraging the audience to let go of their inhibitions – which he made. We want more after a quick 75-minute set, but one thing is certain as they walk off stage: the star of Yves Tumor is born.