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Bicep: Isles

What is the purpose of club music when no one can go out? Do the outlaw rave roots of house music ring true in an era where society is better off simply following the rules? As European and American nationalism digs trenches between us, is it irresponsible to engage in jubilant escapism? Or is it vital and imperative that we do precisely that?

These questions may not have informed the two-year creative process that birthed Isles, Bicep’s second full length, but they are to be reckoned with all the same. Whether the Belfast-born/London-based duo like it or not, the pitch shift of history and the BPM of anxious hearts force this album onto the grid of the present. That’s why the single “Apricots” was such a perfect backdrop to 2020. In any other year, the song’s gloom-tinged tension layered over a minimal classic house pulse would be more of an underground sensation, but in 2020, the staff of none other than Billboard magazine declared it the Best Dance Song of the year.

While the album is so perfectly mapped to the present, many of its best moments come from the unexpected ways it looks back. And that’s no surprise given Bicep’s origin story. Childhood friends Andrew Ferguson and Matthew McBriar turned their love of dance music into a blog celebrating the forgotten and unexplored corners of disco, Detroit techno and classic house before turning their efforts to DJing and making music of their own in 2009. But when Bicep explores the past, they do so as ghost hunters rather than historians. The spirits of dancefloors past drift in and out over the course of Isles’ 10 tracks. Ghostly vocal samples floating over the squelchy synth hook of “Atlas” recall Future Sound of London’s signature banger “Papua New Guinea.” “Sundial” has a driving, layered anxiety that evokes Second Toughest in the Infants era Underworld. “X” answers any lingering questions about what Bicep’s approach to late-‘90s Big Beat would sound like. But all these signifiers of classic UK club music reveal themselves in light, tasteful strokes and come off more as faint echoes of rather than nostalgia.

Moving forward while looking back can be tricky territory, but Bicep navigates successfully for the most part. Isles often flirts with the anthemic before pulling back into the driving minimalism that Bicep has all but perfected, and that can be frustrating. “X” and “Rever” have momentum to spare but the payoffs never quite arrive. The garage callback “Saku” is built around a vocal hook from Clara La San that teases what a crossover xx-style indie hit from Bicep might sound like. Whether these are exercises in restraint, or a sneak preview of Bicep’s plans for world domination remains to be seen. Isles captures the dark moment we’re living in, but those subtle hints of better things to come feel like early glimmers of light and hope. Someday soon, we won’t be grappling with the contradiction of club music during lockdown. The music Bicep will make to meet that moment is truly something to look forward to.

Isles captures the dark moment we’re living in, but those subtle hints of better things to come feel like early glimmers of light and hope.
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Looks Back, Moves Forward

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