Irish duo retreats to the club to escape the church, years later, they come full circle
Lifelong friends, Belfast natives and music bloggers-turned-producers Matt McBriar and Andy Ferguson make up the influential electronic duo, Bicep. Since their formation in 2009, the dance duo has been on the rise, hitting top numbers on the UK’s album charts with the release of their sporadic club hits and 2017’s debut album, Bicep. Appealing largely to the European club scene, Bicep has left their large fan base waiting in anticipation with an album that has been two years in the making. On January 22nd, 2021, sticking with Ninja Tune, Bicep released their second full-length album, Isles.
With 10 exceedingly lengthy tracks, Isles, in all, resembles several thematic elements relating to the artists’ experience exploring worldly cultures, as well as a reflection of growing up in Northern Ireland. In the release of this album, the duo explains that growing up on an island has left them with strong emotions, such as continual feelings of “wanting to leave” and “wanting to return,” something the duo experienced through the touring life of a DJ. “Isles is, in part, a meditation on these contradictions, the struggle between the expansive and the introspective, isolation, and euphoria,” explains Bicep.
With this album, Bicep had the chance to explore a concept of freedom they resisted in their previous records, reflecting on subjects they usually escaped in their musical process such as the influence of religion, while further focusing on a very universal concept among artists, the question of “what creates longevity?.” To achieve this, the duo drew from an assortment of 150 demos, stating they intended Isles to represent “a snapshot in time” parallel to the now, eventually achieving a synchronous piece that reflected these moments.
Listeners get their first dose of the duo’s heavy use of sampling in the opening track “Atlas,” where people find Israeli artist Ofra Haza’s “Love Song” altered to an electronic soprano pitch that is hyperextended into synth-lines. Although distinct, it is somewhat of a disappointment compared to Haza’s original vocal, whilst the producer’s intentions appeal to an electronic track. People then follow into “Cazenove,” which begins with a skittering, bongo-like rhythmic beat, reflecting an experimental combination of cultural diversity in sound.
The third track, “Apricots,” is by far one of the more exciting listens on the album. Using eerie percussion and extended synths, the duo converted vocal samples of Malawian singers to creating a distinct polyrhythm fitting to the deep house genre of the track. The next track, “Saku,” featuring London-based R&B singer Clara La San, brings forward a groovy house production, fitting to the bedroom club scene, with Clara’s airy atmospheric background vocals falling into the track’s melody, joining with emotional lyrics written by Bicep themselves.
La San appears once more on the song “X,” but the track presented before it, “Lido,” provides listeners with a “transitional” instrumental which may come across as unappealing to some as it is overly extended in length with an unchanging melody of electronic sounding keys. However, the song presents a soothing and enticing transition to La San’s feature on “X.” This track instantly draws listeners in as it explores deep and futuristic dub-step and techno elements in their sound.
“Rever,” featuring Canadian cellist and composer Julia Kent, is the most industrial song on the album, as it resembles a darker vibe with Kent’s composition and provides an additional layering of chant-like vocal samples near the song’s finish. “Sundial” again reflects the use of very distinct and creative sampling, as the duo took pieces from the 1973 Bollywood film Raja Rani’s “Jab Andhera Hota Hai.” In the making of this song, the artists shared that it really came together during mistakes they made in production; the two decided they preferred the way the song sounded from the faulty recordings and ran with it.
The last two tracks of the album, “Fir” and “Hawk,” resemble electronic euphoria in different ways. “Fir” is high-paced, layered, jittery in rhythm and creates a full and overwhelming sound to listen to, but it fits in with the thematic elements of old-school to new-age ’90s dance. “Hawk” similarly uses sounds that may be unpleasing to the ear for the introduction, but as people listen, they get bits of deep synth lines and inciting house vocals from Tokyo-based artist machína, and the song evolves out as a full electronic orchestra, completing the album’s finale.
Overall, Isles takes influence from an assortment of genres: the London club scene, Italo-disco, Garage house and Detroit techno, and all of their inspired cultural influences from Bicep’s travels. This album gives Bicep fans a toned-down version of their original sound for the house rather than the club. When speaking to Bicep about their future tour, McBriar says, “the live version will be much, much harder.”