Bicep – Isles (2021)

The second album from the Belfast born and East London based duo Bicep is probably one of the most hotly anticipated electronic releases of 2021 to date. No doubt many listeners will be hoping to find some escape from the seemingly interminable lockdown blues in the bright and expansive dance music that Bicep are known for. In these fair isles, the whole lockdown situation has been dragging on so long – and with it the shuttering of night clubs and cancellations of gigs and festivals – it almost seems cliched at this point to ponder what it means for a dance act like Bicep to record an album for ‘home listening’.  

Andy Ferguson and Matt McBriar, electronic music strongmen

Because despite the brief respite last summer, where we were permitted to go to pubs – albeit under very specific and constantly changing conditions – the whole night-time economy has remained stubbornly off-limits. Along with many other electronic acts, Bicep capitalised on the sudden ubiquity of Zoom, utilising it to deliver a live-streamed DJ set direct to people’s living rooms. While there may be something to be said for this medium and its ability to provide a more direct link between artists and fans, I think we can all agree it’s a meagre substitute for the real thing. 

Even with innovations such as this, the music industry has been brought to its knees by the pandemic. The recent furore around the Performing Rights Society’s introduction of a licencing fee for small-scale live-streamed gigs highlights just how desperate things have become, with various parties squabbling over ever more paltry sums of money. Given all these negative vibes, you could forgive Bicep for bringing out an album of downbeat introspection. 

But thankfully optimism has won out and Matt McBriar and Andy Ferguson have set their sights firmly on the summer, and beyond, when I expect (and hope, and pray) they’ll be playing these tunes out to ecstatically grateful crowds. And although the crowds of ravers will no doubt be wide-eyed, some innocence will’ve been lost, with everyone aware of how quickly all we took for granted can disappear. For some festival-goes the experience may be tainted by a nagging concern that being amongst a sea of people holds a level of risk. I can only hope this doesn’t last and that as the real risk continues to fall, we can once again come together and enjoy the transformative power of music, experienced en masse. Guest collaborator Clara la San’s lyrics on Saku are fairly standard pop-song fodder, but in this context they take deeper significance, “I just need to feel what I felt before, Can you help me feel what I’m waiting for?” 

So by and large, Isles is not deeply introspective, but it is somewhat more subdued than their self-titled debut. A feeling of dormancy – suppressed energy waiting to be unleashed – resides in these ten tracks. Despite all the build-ups, the rising synth chords and the teasingly filtered vocal samples, there are no massive drops or properly euphoric breakdowns. At no point do Bicep really give it all they’ve got and drop an absolute banger. But then that’s never really what they’ve been about, and in fact the duo have themselves suggested this is the ‘home listening version’ of Isles, and that the live show, when it comes, will feature the same tracks in tooled-up form. 

Over the course of dozens of singles, and a previous full length in 2017 that broke the UK top 20 charts, Bicep have honed their craft and become masters at what they do. Fusing elements from the last 30 years of dance music – breakbeat, rave, house, techno, – intro a frothy mixture perfectly suited to those transition stages of a night out. That point when the sun is setting and you feel the air quicken as the temperature drops and the thrill of night-time beckons, or those moments in the morning, when the sun begins to rise and carefree euphoria turns to a melancholy sense of displacement. You can just imagine a track like Rever, with its stately 2-step beat, spiritual vocal sample (lifted from a Bulgarian folk song, of all places) and soaring horns that build in intensity soundtracking bleary-eyed ravers as they stumble out of a warehouse.  

Before settling in East London and beginning their rise to globe-trotting, arena-filling superstar DJs, Bicep were born and raised in Northern Ireland. According to the duo, Isles is named in acknowledgement of their connection with two different islands, and the mixed feelings that result from uprooting to a new home. Time spent in the cultural melting pot of London brought an eclecticism to their music, and on Isles it seems their worldwide touring has opened the doors for even more global influences. There’s a 1970s Bollywood soundtrack sampled on Atlas, a Renaissance choir on Lido and Malawi folk music on Apricots, to pick just a handful. 

Maybe it’s because they knew their audience would be playing this record in generally sedate surroundings, that Bicep pulled out all the stops to bolster their sound as much as possible. As a result, listening to Isles feels luxurious – an experience like getting behind the wheel of a sports car. The production positively glimmers with a brand-new sheen and the moving parts glide and flow like a well-oiled machine. The chord changes and epic pads are perfectly engineered to quicken your pulse and get the neck hairs standing up. So much so that I can’t help feeling I’m being taken for a ride. Because by the time Fir rolls round towards the close of the album, the combination of wordless vocal sample, fidgety breakbeat and plaintive yet uplifting melody does become a little predictable. 

What Bicep did so well on their most popular track to date – Glue, from 2017 – was distil elements whose universal familiarity infuses them with meaning. The lazy breakbeat is instantly recognisable from a thousand garage tracks, likewise the vocal sample could come from any number of 90s rave tunes. Due to dance music’s tendency to constantly recombine and recycle itself, these sounds have endured and become part of its very fabric. As a result, Glue is like a super-concentrated hit of serotonin, euphoria and melancholy all in one. It’s a powerful effect but like anything super-concentrated, should be used sparingly. And on Isles, I feel like Bicep are just trying to get me that way every time. It’s sweet and sugary and for a short while intoxicating, but ultimately it leaves me feeling a little…unsatisfied.  

Of course, there’s a degree to which this is just music-snobbery. Because as much as I might want to turn my nose up at Isles’ poppier qualities, you’d have to be made of stone not to enjoy it. Every time X rolls around, with its fizzing synth hook, building bassline and Burial-aping vocals (again from Clara la San) I can’t help reaching to turn the volume up. Yes, there might be more ‘interesting’ and edgy dance music out there, but if you want something that sounds superb, hits in all the right places and will get you looking to the future with optimism (something we could all do with right now) then Isles is just the ticket. 

This review originally appeared in Still Listening Magazine.

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