The Belfast boys are back in production, though perhaps not quite as you may remember them. Their latest offering ‘Isles’, departs from the warehouse-filling sounds of their eponymous debut album which featured such tracks as ‘Glue’ and ‘Aura’, steeped in nostalgia and euphoria and now firmly established staples on the festival and club circuit. Instead ‘Isles’ delves far deeper into the pairs’ plethora of influences (from both sides of the Irish Sea) and ostensibly presents itself as a ‘home listening’ album. Matt McBriar, one half of the duo claims this is in anticipation of the tracks’ continual evolution and revamping in a series of highly anticipated live shows to come when the shackles of lockdown are finally broken (Andrew Ryce, Resident Advisor).
The opener ‘Atlas’ seems to fit the all too familiar bill of ‘Unreleased Bicep’ (I myself was guilty of spamming online comment sections with ‘ID’ requests after hearing Job Jobse first drop it!). The whining arpeggiated synths, punchy breakbeats and underlying sense of melancholy tick all the boxes in Bicep’s tried and tested formula. The remainder of the album however offers something a little more reserved though in a way that is subtle and cleverly constructed. Take for instance ‘Lido’, a deceptively minimalistic, almost spectral soundscape created using a single 1970’s piano note and one of the pairs’ infamous granular samplers (David Renshaw, Fader). The track builds on an eerie synth backdrop and provides layer-on-layer of ambient texture even incorporating what appears to be a church choir, a possible hint to the prevalence of religious issues in the pairs’ youth.
The retreat from packed venues has clearly allowed McBriar and Ferguson to tune into their more introspective experimentalism, a sentiment echoed in the hypnotic reverb and trance-infused rhythms of ‘Sundial’ and the jittery unpredictability of ‘Cazenove’. Taken in conjunction with ‘Apricots’, we see how these tracks are the product of tireless knob-tweaking and reworking in the studio, as well as an expression of the pairs’ multicultural experience, having hailed from Belfast and now being based in East London. These tracks take the duo back to where they began, with the crate-digging ‘Feel My Bicep’ blog that initially propelled them to stardom. ‘Sundial’ samples from a 1973 Bollywood film for instance, while ‘Apricots’ features both an old recording of traditional Malawian singers and a Bulgarian choir: the results are mesmerising!
Make no mistake, ‘Isles’ is not a political statement. Indeed, the duo have repeatedly made reference to how electronic music offered an escape and a counterculture to the deeply politicised issues of their Northern Irish heritage. The album is best seen as an appreciation of the intersections of their musical influences, from the techno and trance of early clubbing years in Belfast, to the London inspired two-step garage of ‘Saku’ and the drum & bass-like, flanger-driven elements of‘Rever’, ‘Fir’ and ‘Hawk’. And then there’s ‘X’, a bass-heavy futuristic haze, neatly accompanied by the soft tones of R&B vocalist Clara La San. In many ways Bicep continue to demonstrate their ability to transcend genre boundaries and craft a truly unique sound. ‘Isles’ marks a ‘step back’ from the club scene as we have been forced to the same. No doubt when the doors reopen however it will be a significant springboard forward as Bicep unleash their live show.
Words: Oliver Hockings