Balming Tiger Mesmerise Crowds Live at Heaven

When I arrive under the arches to watch Balming Tiger play a sold out show at Heaven, I can barely squeeze into the room. The band aren’t anywhere to be seen yet, but the crowd is already alive – people are craning their necks and adjusting their positions to be able to catch the best glimpse of the self-proclaimed ‘alternative K-pop’ collective, who are widely known for their genre-defying catalogue, frenetic live performances, and distinct visual identity. 

Hailing from South Korea, Balming Tiger’s full line-up consists of a total of 11 musicians, producers, visual artists, video directors, and creatives, with five making up the current performing contingent: Omega Sapien, Mudd the Student, sogumm, bj wnjn, and Chanhee. This night marked the tenth stop on The Tiny Tour, which has taken Balming Tiger from Head in the Clouds Festival in New York all the way across Europe, with stops in Manheim, Prague, Paris, Luxembourg, Turku, Barcelona, and Worthy Farm, where the group took to the West Holts stage for their Glastonbury Festival debut on Sunday afternoon. The Tiny Tour is Balming Tiger’s second major international outing since the release of their stellar debut album, January Never Dies, in October 2023. 

My friend and I carefully nudge our way through the crowd, and it doesn’t take long for us to gather we’re in for something special. The set begins at 8.30pm sharp, and over the next hour, Balming Tiger all but blows the roof off the joint, energising the crowd to a point where it feels like the room is shaking, which is pretty hard to do when you’re performing in a venue wedged underneath an 164-year-old train station made of solid brick. 

If the members are at all feeling the effects of their packed schedule, it doesn’t show. The quintet emerge from the wings wearing matching tan and white ensembles, and devour their first two songs in front of a psychedelic animation depicting the group sitting cross-legged around a floating portrait of Balming Tiger founder and creative director, San Yawn, who we would later find out is looking on from backstage. 

They have us all jumping from the get go, opening with ‘Kolo Kolo’ and ‘Armadillo’, two bombastic tracks that pre-date January Never Dies. To its credit, the crowd was more than ready to cut loose – anticipation had built up naturally as the room waited for Balming Tiger to take the stage, with fans hyping each other up in the absence of a warm-up act. 

“We’ve done three consecutive sold out shows and this is the biggest one yet,” Omega Sapien proclaims, addressing the crowd for the first time that evening before launching into ‘Bodycoke’. “I feel fuckin’ sick right now.” ‘Bodycoke’, a rap-heavy track off of January Never Dies, features the frankly bonkers opening lyric, ‘Supersoaker pussy got a Coca-Cola body / Tween her thighs, holy water / Drippin’ like a global warming’. Pulitzer Prize, immediately. 

If the energy was high during ‘Bodycoke’, it explodes with ‘Buriburi’, an infectious tune complete with simple, yet genius choreography that had all the members swaying from side to side in sync during each chorus, the crowd swaying right along with them. At no point does it feel like the stage is too cramped for the five performers, who move as a unit with a subtle finesse that comes close to invoking the polish of other K-pop acts, and then subverts it. Intentional or not, it presents like a delicious masterclass in balancing authenticity and production value, and I genuinely can’t think of anything to compare it to. It feels radical, cool, and overall, new.

At this point, the group are all smiles, taking in the sheer sight of the packed room as they pause between songs. It feels like we’re bearing witness to something special – a night the group would likely remember for the rest of their lives. 

“What a crowd!”, sogumm says, gazing out at the audience. Her group mates repeat the sentiment. “Insanity,” they muse. “Best show on this tour.” A bold claim to make five songs into the setlist, but I’m inclined to believe it. We’re barely five songs in, and I’m hooked. Meanwhile, my friend, who’s attending the show with me and has never heard of Balming Tiger before in her life, is completely immersed, sunglasses on, Diet Coke in hand, going harder than I’ve ever seen her go on a weeknight. It’s beautiful. 

“It’s London,” Mudd the Student quips a bit later on, after delivering a mesmerising performance of ‘Kamehameha’, a hypnotising track intended to mimic the feeling of being drunk. “Everyone has a special energy, you know.” 

The group does an incredible job of maintaining that energy throughout the performance – it only dips when they want it to, namely right before they perform ‘Sexy Nukim’, their 2022 breakout hit featuring RM of BTS. Omega Sapien, Mudd the Student and bj wnjn grab mic stands from the wings, and hush the audience into complete silence. “We’re going to be sexy now,” they declare. Together, the trio replicate some of the choreography from the song’s music video, and the audience goes bananas. 

Once Chanhee and sogumm re-join their bandmates on stage, Omega Sapien takes the opportunity to introduce the next song, ‘Sudden Attack’ acapella, by having the crowd chant the lyrics, “Fuck this war / I want peace”. The song itself delivers a surprising, almost Beastie Boys-like sonic quality, complete with relentless metal-tinged guitar riffs and screamed lyrics throughout. On Chanhee’s orders, the crowd forms a pit, and moshes, twice. 

After coming down from ‘Sudden Attack’, the band plays ‘UP!’, an album track I find reminiscent of early N.E.R.D. We then get to experience ‘Pop the Tag’, one of Omega Sapien’s solo efforts, released in 2019. ‘Pop the Tag’ is the highlight of the night. The exhilarating club track sounds almost as if Azealia Banks’ ‘212’ was on Vince Staples’ ‘Big Fish Theory’, but also not at all. It’s so fresh, and so, so cool. Everyone loses their minds. I turn to my friend and say, “This is the best song I’ve ever heard.” 

I’m incredibly hesitant to compare Balming Tiger’s songs to anything, because they stand in a league of their own. With so many distinct voices feeding into the final product, it’s not going to sound the same as anything any of them might’ve come up with individually. But nobody’s voice gets lost in the process, perhaps owing to the foundation of friendship the group have discussed time and time again in different interviews. Instead, they seem to have mastered a sense of harmony, and are very aware of their strengths – it makes for some damn good music. 

As the set nears its conclusion, we sing happy birthday to Chanhee, looking on as his group mates present him with a birthday cake on stage. Chanhee emerges from his perch behind the decks to introduce the next, and final, song, anthemic fan-favourite, ‘Trust Yourself’, telling the audience his birthday wish is for us to trust ourselves. Your wish is our command, king. 

Before the final number, Omega Sapien steps up to make a closing speech. “When I first came here to London, there were 45 people,” he says. “I was surprised, like, 45 people knew my music. Then a year passed, and another year passed, with the same people doing the same thing, and now I’m at Glasto, now I’m playing a sold out show at Heaven,” he continues, beaming with pride. Just as it seems like he’s about to deliver a reflective, soulful observation, he grins, and plugs the group’s London exclusive merch. “I was supposed to do this at the beginning of the show, but I forgot,” he laughs. 

“I’m touring around the world, and I’ve met the best people,” Omega Sapien gets his speech back on track and lists off a number of collaborators, including San Yawn, who appears, salutes the crowd and promptly disappears backstage, letting the performers shine. “My only goal is to keep doing what we do with you guys, so thank you so much for the support.” 

The house lights come up after the group performs their encore, an unreleased song called ‘Big Butt’, which I implore them to release expeditiously. Balming Tiger takes their final bow, and poses for a photo before departing the stage for good. “Thank you so much London,” Omega Sapien says, smiling out at the crowd. “I’ll remember this forever.” I can say with confidence, on behalf of everyone in attendance, that we will too.

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Words: Madeline Anderson
Photography: Sophie Vaughan