Just as rock music has fallen out of fashion, Yves Tumor has become increasingly insistent on performing it. What does it mean to become a rock star, dripping swagger and larger-than-life mystique, in an age where achieving actual mass popularity playing this kind of music is almost impossible? (In a conversation with Courtney Love for Interview magazine, Tumor insists on the importance of protecting their privacy rather than exposing the details of their life to a potentially hostile audience.) Tumor’s music has never felt cynical, but their presentation in live shows and videos suggests a certain degree of irony. Guitarist Chris Greatti plays the Mick Ronson to Tumor’s Bowie, with long hair and makeup making him look as though he stepped out of an ‘80s Sunset Strip metal band. (Greatti’s YouTube channel shows him playing guitar solos from Van Halen and White Lion and inserting shredding leads into Lady Gaga and Dua Lipa songs.)
In a review of glammed-out Eurovision rockers Maneskin’s latest album, Steven Hyden described that group as “cartoonish caricatures of rock stars,” and added Yungblud, Ghost, Greta van Fleet, and even Harry Styles to a list of popular acts who fall into the same category, before going on to say that “the caricature is fun.” On Praise a Lord Who Chews But Which Does Not Consume; (Or Simply, Hot Between Worlds), Tumor’s verbosely titled new album, the artists addresses this very subject head-on: “A parody of a pop star / You behaved just like a monster / Is this all just makeup?” But wearing a ripped Slipknot T-shirt, leather mini-skirt, and fishnet stockings — as Tumor did at Pitchfork’s 2021 festival — might articulate something even deeper than confessional balladry.
Queer Black artists have been present since the birth of rock’n’roll, and Tumor is following in the lineage of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Little Richard. Without getting heavy-handed, the video for “Heaven Surrounds Us Like a Hood” makes this point. It cuts from Tumor playing guitar while sitting on a rotating statue of an apple core to images of two child stans dancing in a bedroom plastered with Tumor posters. At its end, one of the kids takes a bite from an apple. While LGBTQ people are being regularly demonized as corrupters of youth, the video, like Oliver Sim’s “Fruit,” understands and shows the necessity of passing down the gift of our knowledge.
Tumor’s music notably became far more accessible after signing to Warp Records for 2018’s Safe in the Hands of Love, but they’ve still always kept an eye on the future, even while their first album was entirely based upon samples. Comparisons have been drawn from Dean Blunt and James Ferraro to Bowie and Prince, but few of Tumor’s songs actually sound like anyone else’s. The power ballad “Kerosene!” from Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Tumor’s answer to “Purple Rain,” is a distinct exception, but it borrowed its melody from the unlikely source of Uriah Heep’s “Weep in Silence.”
Praise a Lord… was recorded with a shifting group of musicians, yet it reflects the same discipline as live shows with Tumor’s tight touring band. Seven bassists, including Tumor themself, perform on the album, but they share a consistent sound: thick, distorted, often occupying a rhythm guitar’s space. It’s the rhythm section that drives most songs, and a track like “God Is a Circle,” without adopting the motoric beat, still races ahead with the same compulsive forward motion. Tumor’s recent music has utilized thick, layered production, with subtle bits of noise hidden in the mix, and it repays loud, close listening. But no matter how much their songs add on top, the groove remains: “Meteora Blues,” for instance, takes a lunge into heavy metal, with lead guitar used for additional texture.
Tumor’s origins in vaporwave — making music based on loops on a laptop — are also still faintly perceptible in Praise a Lord. Now that they can afford to pay to clear samples, “Operator” lifts from Faith No More’s “Be Aggressive,” and on the album’s most experimental song, the instrumental “Praised by the Trial of Fire,” Tumor again returns to those roots. The track filters and processes horns, guitar, and drums into an approximation of a warped, skipping record. The source material becomes unrecognizable, as though burnt by the title’s fire, and the drums refuse to stick to a steady beat. A brief melody does emerge, but the song never puts much emphasis on it.
Praise the Lord… also retains the motif of religious imagery that is a constant in Tumor’s music and videos: take song titles like “Psalm,” “Gospel for a New Century,” “Face of a Demon,” or this album’s very name (following Experiencing the Deposit of Faith and Heaven to a Tortured Mind.) Their second album, Serpent Music, which was originally going to be called God Fearing, alludes to the Garden of Eden. At the same time, their specific use of these references suggests a skepticism about Christianity and an interest in “occult” spirituality. They’ve played devilish figures in the videos for “Lifetime,” where they struggle within a pentagram made of rope, and “Gospel for a New Century.” (Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” video suggests Tumor’s influence.) Similarly, the video for “Kerosene!” continues rock’s time-honored tradition of Aleister Crowley references, with a flying golf ball exploding over a “Love Is the Law” banner during Greatti’s guitar solo.
Praise a Lord… engages with all of these concerns in a thorough manner, examining Tumor’s ideas about religion in their full complexity. On “Meteora Blues” they sing, “I’ll always pray to an empty sky / stare straight into the morning star.” “Heaven Surrounds Us Like a Hood,” meanwhile, uses a sample of a boy saying “I love the color blue because it’s in the sky and that’s what God is.” These references bleed the spiritual, carnal, and romantic into each other, laying out the impossibility of separating them — song after song describes God and a lover in the same breath. Tumor’s flirtations with the occult reveal the power of desire to break down black-and-white morality; see, for instance, “In Spite of War,” which relates a difficult relationship in which Tumor yearns after a lover who is compared to both angels and devils. It’s clear, then, that the increasing polish of Tumor’s music hasn’t eliminated its experimentation, but has instead only made it more subtle. Praise the Lord… suggests that a reliable groove is the best starting place to ponder some of life’s biggest questions.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 11.