FEBRUARY – Bicep – Isles

How do you make an album of memorable dance music when there’s no dancefloor to experience it on? As someone that’s spent much of their life on and around dancefloors since their teenage years, no year feels more alien than this for this reason. I have not danced in public since March and it has never been easy wrapping my head around that. It’s not a problem that northern Irish duo Bicep set out to wrestle with when they took the majority of 2019 off to make Isles, but it’s become the conundrum for most dancefloor-focused music and producers over the past year as the industry grapples with an existential event that could change culture as we know it. Despite this undercurrent of doom, there have been some notably incredible electronic music albums released since March – amongst them Kelly Lee Owens, more than one by Four Tet, Caribou, Roisin Murphy, and Romare – so it’s not the case the Bicep’s second album is a potential outlier, it’s just that it’s so hotly anticipated, such was the euphoria and afterglow that greeted their self-titled debut in 2017. Can anything ever really live up to the hype?

Usually January brings a level of excitement as you scan for new albums, new tours, gigs, and festival dates. This isn’t a usual January. In fact all the hope we felt in the autumn of 2020, with the new year being a chance to kiss the difficult days and grim news cycle goodbye in 2021, seems a distant memory. Gigs that felt a welcome chance to anticipate old joys once more, now just another date pushed back, and the new year feels a cruel repeat of last one. So bringing Isles as an album of the month, its ethos pitched so obviously against the prevailing times, felt less a gamble, more just a twisted joke. Sometimes release dates also force the hand (there’s nothing so unromantic as podcast record dates and time to familiarise yourself with an album enough to make sense of it) and so in the end it was the most obvious option. Despite my reticence of picking an album which felt so against the times, it became clear at first listen I’d overthought the entire thing, and really this was a welcome balm that instantly lifted my mind out of a lot of the low-level shit that occupies it in lockdown life. I can’t put into words how good that feels, or how needed it is.

Hype can suffocate an album, but when listening to Isles the first time, it feels almost perfectly pitched to the current experience of imagined dancefloors, as we all await the real ones. Not because it lacks any potency, or moments of magic that don’t make you wish you were in a sweaty basement with a red light in the corner and a wall of speakers between you and the DJ. Even on first listen, it seems to be an album that sits just as well for ‘home’ listening (headphones, for optimal experience please) as it would sound when – we all hope – we finally get to see it reverberating around a room full of people. Alongside this, its magic also lies in its ability to shapeshift and flit between genres whilst still sounding like one coherent work. This is not a simple feat to achieve. Many impressively produced electronic albums either start impressively, only to slide into ‘ten club bangers’ territory, or just slowly disintegrate by trying to hard to be something they’re not: a messy, incoherent, overambitious failure. Isles isn’t one of these records. In fact, as it flits between changes of pace, time signatures and atmospherics, it manages to pull off being every bit as impressive as its forbear, arguably a more complete album.

Electronic music – and I say it as someone that’s been enveloped by it since my late teens, and dabbled as a promoter, producer, journalist since pretty much my mid-20s until now – is a bewildering scene that is so rich that it’s almost impossible to take in its outer reaches, even for those professionally involved. Even with scenes – house, techno, drum’n’bass – there’s such an ecosystem that being at the centre of it is a 24/7 dedication. Yet when you talk about albums and artists and sounds that manage to break out of that sweaty underground, it has felt – as least to me – that the older I have got, the more homogenous things at the top have felt. Where are the new equivalents and the inventiveness of Leftfield, Orbital, Chemical Brothers, LTJ Bukem, Carl Cox, Dave Clarke, the KLF, and Underworld? Acts that can make captivating music that didn’t just fill clubs but took over stadiums and the top 40 (even as – of course – so much incredible music was still underground and at the fringes)? Perhaps it’s my age, yes, but also the global domination of ‘tech house’ (it’s not tech house, it’s business techno) and EDM feels like while all the money has gone to the top of the pile, a lot of the creativity seems to have been leached from it. Which is why the likes of Bicep are to be celebrated. They do not make music from a template, and it doesn’t really sound like a lot of other music around, certainly not that by a single artist. Isles may not break new ground, but such is the scope for sonic richness in their sound, that there is a lot of mileage to go yet before they need to think about reinvention.

We first encountered Bicep on the blog in 2017 when Nolan posted what would later be singles from their debut, and he brought Bicep as album of the month in Feb 2018. It came on a wave of hype then, just as its successor does, but it feels like it justifies it. The hype is not theirs, after all, and from all that you read of Matt McBriar and Andy Ferguson – perhaps because of their well-told background as bloggers-turned-DJs-turned-producers – they seem altogether not cut from the same cloth as the private-jet-setting, glitter-cannoned, deep-v-necked ‘techno’ crew whose company they keep in the charts and at festivals. Calling out ‘plague rave DJs‘, talking about how Brexit will hit artists’ ability to tour in the EU, or talking about their perfectionism in even choosing their logo and artwork (self-designed), it’s clear they aren’t just ciphers, but ravers that have much of the love and reverence for the scene that their fans do, too. They understand the culture, and their success is very much their own, so it feels like the connection to the dancefloor, those elements that grab the listener, is very real and unmanufactured.

When I first heard them, back on Will Saul’s Aus Music label with Ejeca in 2012, despite a chunk of their subsequent production leaning towards house, they stood out with their insistence on not existing solely four-four. And this thread runs through their music to the present day: it is definitely not house, nor is it techno, and for that reason I’m attracted. For me, the lineage is back right to the rave era, such is the breakbeat influence, but also through other very British scenes of UK Garage, jungle and breaks. Their music is very much modern, but there’s an undeniable link to the grittier, illegal raves as there is to Orbital or Leftfield. I certainly want to believe the tale that much of the sounds that have made them so successful came from the loss of a hard drive that contained a chunk of new house tracks that inspired them to change tack, and ultimately led to the first album’s more uncommon sound. It’s not quite Sub Sub’s Ancoats studio burning down, but sometimes it’s serendipity that makes the story all the more alluring.

So what is a first impression of ‘Isles’? For an album that’s only been out for a few days, it’s hard to form much more than broad-brush reactions. Of course, a few of the tracks from it – the percussive, elastic bleeps of Atlas, the lush, almost orchestral melodies and chopped up vocals of Apricots, and the garage-evoking Saku – have already given us a taste, but really for any album, its about – at least for us on this blog – the whole. What does the listening experience of Isles feel like when it’s still bright and new? There is real life, vibrancy and brightness throughout: even as the familiarity of the existing tracks leap out, Cazenove, nestled in between this trio, stands out just as purposefully, its ‘intelligent d’n’b’ percussive leanings wrapped within wistful melodies and vox pads. Similarly, Sundial, towards the end of the album, will evoke rushes of nostalgia for those of a certain age with its rotating chord patterns, as if pitched for the sunrise moment as the morning breaks and you realise you’ve danced your way through the night, unsure how you’ll get home. Following it, Fir gets as close to trance (cough) as the album dares (less of a surprise when you realise the pair frequented Belfast mecca Shine in the throes of the big-room house and trance scene in the early noughties) with its choral pads, flanged percs and echoing leads. Album closer Hawk is Bicep at their best: bending rasping notes amid swirling, breathy vocals into a cut of pure energy that has me hairs standing up and my eyes misting over with a mix of nostalgia, elation and sadness. Perfect alchemy that shows exactly why they command such dedicated followings.

Amongst the more urgent tracks, there are relative departures that add texture and allow time for breath. Lido is one of these relative departures: a warm, beatless cut that centres around a piano motif, rich pads and choral vocals, perhaps pointing towards an after-party once the club madness has subsided. X and Rever too, following Lido, prolong the release of energy from the album’s opening and closing frenetic pace, and show that its possible to take a line from A to B that’s not a simple and lazy procession of bangers. No album can honestly keep up that pace and remain focused or enjoyable, and it’s a chance to flex some creative fibres, that also make the tracks that bookend this middle section more powerful in comparison. X cascades metallic notes and an urgent tension despite its relatively downtempo nature, and Rever, almost feeling like an extension of its predecessor, again trades in indistinct words and rumbling leads that focus onto the melody. In fact, one theme running through the album, is that, despite voices on many of the tracks, its only Saku where words are discernible, elsewhere used as another melody, instrument or feel: part of the music rather than at the forefront. Likewise the snare hits that never land on drum sounds, more a rim or filtered out hit that gives all Bicep’s work on Isles a clearer sonic precision.

So, as arresting as it is, will Isles take Bicep up another level? With night-time culture so under threat, it’s hard to predict what the scene will look like in a few months, let alone a year. But without somewhere to dance, Bicep have made an album that will get you close to that feeling, even if you have to close your eyes to do it. Because while home listening is never going to come close to the club (the pair actually hired out Corsica Studios for a day to ensure the new tracks sounded right on a properly tuned system) I’d argue that this is an album that can still bring on those emotions whether you’re running to it, walking, on a bus, or just sitting at home, headphones on. The music has a power and potency that connects, and it’s why I’m sure it’ll still sound as fresh after 50 listens as it does after just a few.

7 thoughts on “FEBRUARY – Bicep – Isles

  1. Wonderful write up as always brother Guy.

    There is little question around my fondness for Bicep which has continued to grow amongst us since we reviewed their first album.

    As we started discussing the soon to be released Bicep album amongst ourselves in the latter part of 2020 many questions went through my head. How are they going to follow up to their self-titled debut album? Which with time I would argue has grown into an essential end to end dance driven album in anyone’s collection. Something that we can all which is rarely achieved. Amongst that, is as Guy pointed out this the right time for a dance act to release an album? Both of those questions have taken me to a place that has resulted in me really liking this album.

    There was a slow build of excitement at the back end of the year when Bicep teased us with the initial three songs of the album; ‘Atlas’, ‘Apricots’ and ‘Sundial’ and although not horrible I wasn’t blown away by them. It wasn’t until the album as a whole was released that the album flow and feel started to make sense. It feels like Bicep haven’t made an album for dance floors this time, they have made an album naturally inspired by the lack of.

    Bicep have picked up from where they left off. The sound is familiar and is a extension of their debut. Though this time I would argue that this is a finely composed album and less a collection of singles which their first album felt like at times. This album is a journey. Their use of well places samples throughout, long synths and fantastic drum programming that most would struggle to poke holes in creates a lovely 50 minute journey. The initial three singles on a whole sit amongst songs that hold them up and put them into a stronger light. Each track complimenting each other.

    As guy has pointed out, I prefer this on headphones though it has already has been rinsed on our home stereo whilst I’ve been cooking over the last few days and has been enjoyed by my crew (my daughter tried to body pop t Apricots on Sunday afternoon).

    Only time will tell if this album rates as high for me as their last, but thus far it’s looking pretty good!

    1. I did expect you to love this, given you brought Bicep to the pod many times yourself. And they never did disappoint. And also that you, Joey and I all have the same feels that, as a whole, the tracks work much better than on their own (where they’re perfectly good). The production is so tight and bright, it’s a joy to listen to.

      I wonder how the last one of us will find it? Hmmmm.

  2. I echo Nolan’s ‘great write up’ words. Considering we’ve only had this a few days there’s some mature thinking in your write up Guy. Of course, as Nolan points we’ve had some of these tracks for some time but he also states that it isn’t until you hear the album as a whole that it reveals itself and its characteristics as a whole. We’ve actually had ‘Atlas’ for the best part of a year. It as released in March ’20. It was a very close 2nd choice for my ‘lock down bangers’ selection in Episode 1 of the podcast. This points to the fact that some of these tracks were perhaps conceived pre-lockdown and all that’s followed.

    Your question of ‘is it a good time to release a ‘dance’ album?’ i.e. when nobody’s had a good dance in the UK for months (without the threat of £10k fines and social leprosy) is fair. Of course I understand this but ever the contrarian I also think it’s kind of irrelevant for many people. It’s not lockdown that’s keeping me off the dancefloor, it’s being 43, with 2 young kids, a wife who has never been bothered about clubs …. oh and living in a little sleepy Lancashire village. My consumption of this music is completely unaffected by lockdown. I was always going to listen to this on headphones in my house, in my car, while at the gym etc. I’d also argue that the album format indicates how this music was always going to be consumed. Ok, so 3-5 or so of the tracks would be played out in original form or remixed versions but as a whole, surely the album format dictates this was going to be played at home. It’s very well considered sequencing of tracks is further evidence of this. it’s a really well put together album, start to finish and doesn’t make sense played on shuffle. This isn’t a producer album with 3 bangers and a bunch of filler. it’s a proper body of work. And i love it.

    There’s not a track I dislike. I love the sequencing of tracks. Closing with the epic Hawk is a master stroke but when I listen on repeat (which i do 99% of the time) … when it spins back to the start and Atlas comes back on, I know that the album has started again. it has a beginning, a middle and an end. Electronic albums, particularly those without vocals often suffer from a lack of distinction between tracks but Isles is not one of these albums.

    I’ll write more about specific tracks at the weekend.

    For now. I am very happy with this. It’s up-lifting. Exciting. Intelligent. Complex. It’s almost custom designed for my tastes and needs from a new slice of electronica. I refuse to try to name the genre …. it doesn’t matter.

    1. Interestingly, I’ve read a few reviews and a couple of interviews, and all the tracks were written in 2019, when they took a year off to make the album. So lockdown was never really on the radar. They have said the music was pretty much unchanged, so it does feel like they were trying to make the straddle between home listening and clubs. I agree it’s very much a ‘home’ dance album, but you get the feel for the club at the same time. They also road tested the album in a club in London (the Corsica Studios, one of my favourites) just to make sure it sounded good LOUD.

      I do like your ‘it’s not lockdown that’s keeping me off the dancefloor’ point. Touche. It’s hardly like I was out every week. More like every few months, but I think the more something is rendered impossible, the more you yearn for it. That’s definitely where I am.

      Absolutely agree that the sequencing and programming is great. It’s why – as you say – the three singles sound much better as part of the whole. I know you’re all about the album as an entity, and I’m with you there. It’s definitely got my year off to a punchy start.

  3. Been taking my time to respond to this one – not least because you were all so positive about it. There’s an awful lot that I agree with – this is a classy record made by a duo who really know what they’re doing. The sequencing is excellent, it’s a proper album and it flows brilliantly. It’s got that the promise of emotional warmth in the way it’s constructed, particularly with the plaintive vocal samples. I’ve actually found myself listening to it really quite a lot…

    …but – you know there was a ‘but’ coming. It just isn’t really connecting with me. And it’s taken me ages to work out why. I certainly don’t think it’s really a step forward from the excellent debut.

    There is of course also the issue you’ve been talking about too – which is how hard it is to realise a dance music album when there’s nowhere to dance. I wonder if they’ve caught between a rock and a hard place with this, and understandably so. It isn’t really that dance, as in there aren’t any ‘bangers’ or four to the floor numbers that are stompers. No, I know that’s not necessarily what they do…but it’s worth noting that most of these tracks wouldn’t be murdering a dance floor even if we could dance right now.

    So then is it a headphones album? This is where it started to show its shortcomings to me. I love listening to great dance music when I’m running or exercising, or even sometimes working. I find I can REALLY listen to an album when I’m running, and I’ve run with this quite a bit. What I’m really starting to get frustrated by are its limitations. Songs are beautifully constructed with all the great component parts – and then….? Then nothing. They don’t go anywhere. They don’t really build, they don’t go off in any surprising directions. Most of them plough the same groove for their 4 or 5 minutes – the vocals drop out and return, there’s a bit of a breakdown and build up, and…. well, that’s it.

    Even worse, I had a horrible thought during a couple of tunes, particularly Lido. Oh no. I’ve just realised what this sounds like. It sounds like – and I’m sorry to make this comparison – to that really naff 90s dance outfit, Enigma, who stuck trip hop beats over monks chanting. And now I can’t unthink it every time I hear them!

    Anyway, Enigma aside, I hate to agree with Pitchfork, but I thought this summed it up very well for me:

    “Saku”’s frustratingly not-quite-there production is emblematic of the way Isles teeters on the brink of success. There is something confoundingly almost about Bicep: they are almost a great act, almost capable of unleashing vast emotion, and almost on the verge of letting go. But the release never quite arrives. Isles has sparkling moments but it’s all a bit constrained, like a potted plant on a window sill that craves the natural wildness of a garden.”

    I can’t help but compare to an artist like Caribou, and the insane number of ideas he packs into a song. The restless, creative energy he brings to his work means that you’re constantly being surprised and delighted by what he does. Likewise, Orbital, to whom Bicep owe an absolutely enormous debt musically – my god, you could FEEL every Orbital tune at their height, and not just the party anthems. They threw themselves into it so hard. This album, professional and smart and well-constructed by two incredibly talented guys, just doesn’t surprise me, not at any moment in the whole 50 minutes. No alarms and no surprises, and maybe even a bit less than I expected. It’s obviously not a bad album – they’re too talented for that to be the case – but sorry, Bicep, but I think you could do better.

    1. Interesting and not too surprising David.

      Good write up by the way. I get it. I also ‘get’ the Pitchfork review too.

      Quick Question – How many ‘dance’ artist / producer albums do you listen to? The reason I ask is your feedback reminds me of mine on other albums we’ve reviewed where I thought … ‘if i am going to listen to X genre, I’m going to list to Y artist … not this’. Is it that this simply isn’t THE best of (whatever) the genre this is? Comparisons to Orbital at their prime is a VERY high bar. Which is fine of course but every album can’t be the best electronica album evs?

      I though you’d ask some Caribou questions but was expecting the ‘human’ or ‘machine’ conversation to be raised. Maybe one for the Pod?

  4. Pingback: Podcast: Re-up – THIS IS NOT HAPPENING

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