Photo: Dan Medhurst / Courtesy of Ninja Tune

Bicep Flex New Talents on Sophomore Release ‘Isles’

Bicep's sophomore release Isles is much more grown-up and conflicted. However, this is not to the detriment of their characteristic eclectic abandon.

Ninja Tune
22 January 2021

For the uninitiated, Bicep are a Belfast-born and now London-based dance duo formed by Matt McBriar and Andy Ferguson. Their 2017 eponymous debut received rave reviews for its combination of eclectic influences and sprawling knowledge of electronic music as a discourse. The duo initially began life as an electronic music blog FeelMyBicep, which details this well-listened duo’s credentials. Bicep are an outfit that respect and revere the past and future in equal measure. Just listen to their skillful remixes of crate-digger favorites such as Dominica’s “Gotta Let You Go” and 808 State’s “In Yer Face” or their more modern reworkings of chart-toppers such as “You and Me” by Disclosure.

Bicep’s instantly recognizable sound is a product of their eclectic obsession. House, garage, ambient, downtempo, psychedelic, and everything in between is intermingled in the capable hands of Bicep. Particularly distinguishable and central to the “Bicep sound”, is the playful augmentation of beats. Steeped in syncopation and polyrhythmic/tupleted measures, expect Bicep’s complex beats to affect you physically and cranially. Bicep frequently use pitched synths in place of bass and snare drums, effectively using melody for rhythmic accompaniment. Pitch-bending cymbals slide and drift away, dancing in-and-out between the melodic loops. In layered dynamics, each part of the kit’s volume functions independently. Hi-hat crescendos will contrast and cascade around the diminuendos of other individual percussive elements.

Bicep stated their debut had a naivety to it which is not present on this year’s follow-up, Isles. Isles is born out of the conflicting doublethink experienced by the now emigrated Northern-Irish duo. The urge to explore in a mold-breaking wanderlust met with equally strong feelings of belonging and local identity. Bicep’s sophomore release is much more grown-up and conflicted, however, this is not to the detriment of their characteristic eclectic abandon.

During their adventures Bicep have found influence from “Hindi vocals heard from distant rooftops”, “Bulgarian chorale” amidst busy London traffic, and hastily shazammed “Turkish pop music” heard in the British capital’s kebab houses.

The album opens with the single, “Atlas”, released last March. “Atlas” succeeds so well as an opener for Bicep’s sophomore release. All of the characteristics that were loved in the 2017 debut are here but with greater maturity and confidence. The signs of progression and drawing of new, more unlikely, influences begin here and progress throughout the album. The staples of the “Bicep-sound” are expertly crafted into an exciting and visceral track. Offbeat melodic loops cascade into one another, syncopated beats contort through off-kilter developments, and compelling use of broad but subtle dynamic contrast permeates every layer of this track. “Atlas” is a how-to guide on creating an expansive and highly developed piece with limited melodic material. It is real excitement.

“Atlas” carefully begins a spiritual theme that grows throughout the album. Not spiritual in a religious sense but rather an awareness of a vast world and human collectiveness. Bicep has spoken on both of the duo’s experiences with religion and sees dance music as a place to experience collective freedom absent from societal, and maybe religious, pressures. Some of the most “spiritual” moments on the album are brought about through the use of non-lyrical vocals; monk’s chanting on “Lido”, or the indistinguishable mutterings that sound like an “areligious speaking-in-tongues” on “Sundial”. This spirituality is mixed with the influence of dark ambient on the single “Apricots”.

“Apricots” might be one of the tracks that include the previously mentioned “Hindi vocal” influence. The song begins with a fragile soft chordal synth motif that is eclipsed by harsh industrial drum beats and a non-lyrical vocal loop. Like a melodrama, the conflict between these three elements builds the intrigue and excitement in this track. The synth’s timbre grows gradually harsher and its dynamic builds, now competing with the unintelligible vocals. A new layer, gospel-like vocal harmonies, is introduced into this worldly mixing pot. Each layer vies for control in this psychedelic, dark ambient trip. This shows the skill, eclecticism, and cutting-edge thought that defines Bicep’s style.

The psychedelic and spiritually tinged veins running through Isles should not be seen as the definition of this album, it is so much more. “Saku” takes significant influence from UK garage music with its catchy lyrical melodies and crunching beats. “Rever” sounds like it could easily appear on Bonobo’s next release and has a lot of ethnomusical influences with its use of diverse instrumentation and cross-rhythms. The track “X’ clearly borrows its distorted and dystopian timbres from early-techno greats such as Eddie Fowlkes.

Isles is an excellent progression from Bicep’s debut. The development of the duo’s core sound shows a great deal of promise along with their daring mixes of broad, eclectic influences. The album’s theme of discovery and belonging is clear and poignant throughout and adds an extra dimension to critical listening of many of the tracks. The album does tire a little towards the end, and similar ideas and developments are revisited a little too quickly. Still, overall, Bicep have crafted a very exciting record worthy of high praise. And even if the album doesn’t fully command your interest in its final moments, prepare yourself for 2021 as Bicep only sees this as “the home listening version [and] the live version will be much, much harder”.

RATING 8 / 10


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