At a recent PAN showcase his performance saw an overture of fraught silence punctuated by scattergun deluges of eviscerating noise. Its stop-start incoherence was as bemusing as it was compelling. Eventually Tumor seared into a display that saw mic-howls and marauding beelines into the core of the crowd, set to a bitcrushed, pranging body music that straddled the divide between pain and pleasure.
Serpent Music - his second full length after last year’s self-titled debut - only resembles the quality of that live performance in its disparate sense of flux. The records opening, ‘Devout’, exudes an immaculate new age lustre weighted by meandering jazz instrumentation, yet is too soporific and fluid to be classed as favouring either style. It’s still somewhat of a surprising introduction given the reputation for ear-piercing spectacle his appearance at the PAN night and his collaboration with the fashion label Hood By Air have to some extent established. But it’s still consistent with Tumor’s eye for contrast. His tendency to shift register becomes almost immediately apparent. Just as this introduction begins to settle the sounds fade and it becomes more of an instance of ephemeral ease than a moment of pronounced comfort.
From there the vaporous chamber soul of ‘The Feeling When You Walk Away’ reveals Tumor’s voice, an anguished falsetto steeped in phantasmal echoes that sounds as if it’s simultaneously vanishing just as it’s appearing. Between these disembodied vocals, Tumor fixates on one passage of cavernous funk and in doing so offers an understated sense of subversion. In the same way that RZA and Wu Tang – at their peak – optimized melodic fragments of 70s soul and funk in order to frame and enforce their delivery, Tumor alchemizes a fragment from the same sonic lineage to add melancholic fuel to his. However, in his hands the familiarity of that derivation becomes infernal and hymnal, a substructure rather than a foundation, situated at oneiric depths. Tumor supplants the honey and melisma ingrained in those types of dusty, retrofitted evocations with a chasmal distance. Whether consciously or not, it feels as though the sanctity and upfront authenticity of soul - and the contemporary refashioning that often makes it an anesthetizing, nostalgic concern - is here being delicately but effectively reset. If this can be traced back to soul music, this is a detached interpretation, submerged and very nearly astray.
The indeterminate quality that these first moments reveal – from serene brevity to surreal soul - seems somehow in keeping with the elusive character Tumor has presented to those who’ve tried to find out about his personal life (One word answers peppered with irony have been the main source of information in this regard) Yet even with this absence of explication, it’s not illogical to assume that Serpent Music has been conceived out of upheaval. Born in Tennessee but now based in Turin Tumor produced the record over three years between Leipzig, Los Angeles, Berlin, and Miami. It’s a record that seems to mirror the uncertainty that these movements suggest. But the results are anything but desultory. Instead Tumor presents a record that coheres into one whole despite (or perhaps because of) the profound contrasts that are opened up throughout.
‘Dajjal’ – a track which first emerged on NON Worldwide’s 2015 Volume One Compilation – continues to divulge an air of sorrow about Tumor’s expression, with hypnotic scales of minimalist piano offset by erratic glitches of found sound that range from whips cracking to cosmic static. An Arabic word for deceiver, ‘Dajjal’ symbolizes the antichrist and the imminence of apocalypse. Here it’s the first indication of Tumor’s spiritual preoccupations, with allusions to creation, serpents, seeds, spirits and perdition elsewhere. However, this is a preoccupation that feels less like a set concept than a theme from which Tumor draws inspiration, a way for him to evoke the divine rather than bottle it up. In his evocation, notions of the divine are played with as much as they’re artfully scrutinized. On the front of the record Tumor mirrors these spiritual aspects by presenting a holy pose illuminated by a sparse shaft of light; a vampiric vogue artist in red silk gloves. It doesn’t seem ridiculous to suppose that the upheaval he has experienced may have precipitated this fixation with selfhood and spirituality.
As the record develops Tumor delves into outlying spheres which feel more secluded and elemental, and diverges from the sedate and melancholic more readily. The orientalist figures and aerated scents of ‘Role in Creation’ are sharply contrasted by the subsequent drum trance frenzy and enigmatic field recordings of ‘Serpent I’. On ‘Serpent II’ proceedings are further derailed with ritualistic ambience and an erratic, fragmented speech that sounds as if it’s been lifted from a tribal induction ceremony. This impasse of stark voice-and-drum visitation acts as a gateway to Tumor’s darker and more unpredictable side, as proven by the ominous sub-bass and breathy menace of ‘Broke In’. Recalling the splintered, malformed electronics of Arca and the Halcyon Veil label as well as the queer and lurid aspects of Helm’s ‘Strawberry Chapstick’, it’s the first real indication that Tumor favours physicality as much as abstraction. As these tracks demonstrate, Tumor’s work ebbs and flows between instances of tranquil refinement and curious volatility, and the rate of this fluctuation only increases as Serpent Music progresses.
‘Seed’, for instance, affirms an entrenched continuity of drum machine rhythms and enshrouded vocals yet screeching scourges of noise threaten to overwhelm any of the stability that this synthesis attains. ‘Spirit In Prison’, on the other hand, journeys into an isolated setting, outlaying a bucolic vision that interweaves the sound of birds and church bells with harp, flute and choral harmonies. It sounds more like Deux Filles and Virginia Astley than what you’d commonly associate with the PAN label. The range of Tumor’s deviation reaches a climax with Serpent Music’s conclusion. Syrupy, jazz-inflected interludes that evoke the work of Thundercat initially lend the record’s final moments a sense of ease. Yet consistent with Tumor’s oblique treatment of familiar influences, the results feel faintly alien, made up of sensuous smears and endless echoes. They’re both made all the more incongruous by what they precede. An eight minute closer that incorporates the vivid lapping of water, reverberant ambience, a panting protagonist, and a church choir, ‘Perdition’ plunges into an astonishing, sublime soundworld where even the slightest stirring feels laden with significance.
As ‘Perdition’ retreats gradually into silence, there’s little doubt that Serpent Music is a record of striking individuality. The nature of the record’s trajectory might indicate what Tumor means by Serpent Music; a slippery, elastic form that twists and turns, remaining constantly elusive even as it becomes more ambitious and digressive. Yet even with this inherent elusiveness Tumor manages to reveal the nature of what he’s been contending with during the last three years, without compromising his work’s sense of mystery and cohesion. Whether operating at the extremities of blown out frequencies or moving into the intimacies of hushed, indeterminate susurration, over the course of Serpent Music, Tumor makes a virtue out of discontinuity.