Prog-rock has had a difficult standing in music discourse for close to five decades now. An evolution of the psychedelic and heavy trends of the 60s, the genre was a playground for sprawling compositions with complex musical themes and broad narrative complex. It used to be the intellectual and spiritual side of rock, encompassing foreign influences and genre detours, allowing for massive behemoth-songs of biblical length. Yet – as with all genres – as hard drugs became cheaper and uniform band-costumes turned ridiculous, prog rock ballooned into a mess of uncool hippies and paranoid boomers. By the 90s, most of prog was about how modern media ruins our minds and sounded like a bunch of music teachers hunkered down to deliver their message to the man. But by the turn of the century, something happened. Acid-punks all of a sudden found appeal in the term, expanding it into flowering anthemic kaleidoscopes of their obsessions with death, nostalgia and – yes – drugs.
That’s the sort of prog that makes up Sean Bowie’s latest album under the Yves Tumor moniker. Titled Praise A Lord Who Chews But Which Does Not Consume; (Or Simply, Hot Between Worlds), it proudly carries its influences on its sleeve. It sounds less like Pink Floyd, King Crimson or Yes, and more like The Flaming Lips, Tame Impala and The Mars Volta – the children of prog. Most surprisingly of all, it sonically resembles Klaxons’ Surfing The Void and Smashing Pumpkins’ Machina / The Machines of God: somewhat liquified art-rock that is rich in texture and diverse in tone, but often ponderous and wrestling with its structure.
This might seem like a disadvantage, but it’s not really – style is substance after all. When Yves first impacted with a larger audience through their breakthrough album Safe in the Hands of Love, the strangely loose structures and irradiated soundscapes made it seem like a record the listener would encounter in a dream. To this day, it’s still very hard to describe – it’s too surreal and cerebral to pinpoint it adequately. Follow up Heaven to a Tortured Mind was cleaner and more defined in its psychedelic figurations: it took the various identities Black musicians inhabited and formulated it as a unit. In that, it almost felt like a mashup or remix approach to culture.
But as Praise… soldiers on, it becomes less vaporous than its predecessors and more incidental and associative. Loosely wrapping itself around concepts of theology, spirituality and the complicated nature of relationships, the album includes some of Yves Tumor’s most significant but also most meandering work.
Take “Operator”, where Yves interrogates a phone-line: “Hello? / Are you my lord and savior? / I need a reason to believe / Baby, please never take me home”. Instead of finding a refrain or bridge, the song’s atmosphere just rises in intensity, finally settling on a break that involves a cheerleader chant (a reference to Faith No More? To Marilyn Manson?) before it ends. It’s a hook, but most of the song won’t change after the first minute. “In Spite of War” recycles the “Now I wanna be your dog” riff and opens with the memorable line “Everybody told me you’re a CREEP!”, before slashing its way through four melodic iterations in just under three minutes and then, ends. “Purified by the Fire” is, for the most part, a collage of distorted jazz and grungy trip-hop intensity that never develops further from its core aesthetic idea.
Opener and lead single “God is a Circle” is a dark rocker that never finds a memorable melody or resolve to the tension, a gothic postcard that never finds a climax. Even with its sampled moaning and dark lyrics (“You might hurt someone or yourself / You would tear everything apart / If you found out / Everyone you loved loved someone else”), it feels kind of plodding. “Heaven Surrounds Us Like A Hood” is all climax, but feels like it was ripped out of a larger structure and lacks context.
Usually, weaker tracks on an album are supposed to hold the unit together, emotional resonators before the hits carry the listener. Here, they often seem like thin ideas that are retrofitted into larger orchestration. They’re not so much songs than they are showcases for immaculate production ideas, thrilling musicianship and charismatic attitude. This can work very well – the other Bowie, David, has made some of his best records indulging in dark textures and experiments with avant-garde structures. The difference is that Praise… is very content with its gothic sensibilities, whereas a record like Low never let go of euphoria, which is a little thin on those tracks.
Still, the better songs here are as rich as any material Yves Tumor released. “Lovely Sewer” is a beautiful coldwave track, all muted drumbeat and rotten synthesizers. When it explodes into its refrain, it rises to anthemic qualities. “Meteora Blues” is a rousing alt-rock song I could see Billy Corgan get a little jealous abou; it fits the hit-making “Today” writing formula perfectly, and sports some of the record’s strongest and most heartbreaking lyrics: “Red cherry lips / Thought I found you in my dream / Isn’t it sweet? / Still I cannot see you”. The combinations of its motives – red lips, distant stars and and crushed dreams – segues perfectly into the grunge ballad “Parody”, which wrestles with the oppressive tendencies of powerful artists: “Send your face and name on a postcard / A parody of a pop star / You behaved like a monster / Is this all just makeup?” Even if the lyrics are repetitive, it’s wild to see how the song manages to transform in just three minutes.
“Echolalia” is fairly straightforward, but manages to shine with all its strange sounds, ominous spoken word samples and sinister critique of adoration as deification. And “Fear Evil like Fire” is reminiscent of Radiohead’s In Rainbows era, with its accentuated drums and flowering bass-line, while its sparkling nocturnal aura is closer to Adore.
Praise… finds so many stylistic expressions for its gothic tone that it feels at times contradicting. It rarely stays in the same spot, skips between tone and fidelity and is emotionally all over the place. While Yves’ lyrics circle the same themes throughout, the songs feels disconnected in their expression. It’s hard not to get whiplash between the studio-orgasms that don’t focus on cohesive songwriting structure and the clear-cut hits. Sometimes, it feels as if they’ve said everything they wanted to say in the first minute of a track and then expand the remaining runtime with bombast, collage or disconnected ideas that never fully fit those moments. But then the next song can provide an explosion of visionary musicianship that resembles the lurid late-90s era when mainstream rock was allowed to be more subversive and anarchist than ever before. It never stands still and stops to rest – for better and for worse. It’s somewhat of a transitionary moment. Even if it remains to be seen what destination it leads to, there’s still enough interesting material here to fulfill its destiny.