Album Review: Bicep – Isles

[Ninja Tune; 2021]

In presenting their new record as “a snapshot in time,” London-via-Belfast duo Bicep raise an intriguing question: can two versions of the same project coexist? Matt McBriar and Andy Ferguson would seem to think so; while they’ve got a formidable live reputation, they’ve never necessarily needed to capture that energy and bombast on record. It’s not for everyone, and has been attempted to varying degrees of success. After building up steam for close to a decade, their self-titled 2017 debut album saw their creative vision unveiled in earnest, but it came into its own on the hectic two-year tour that followed it.

Its follow-up prioritises progression over reinvention – this isn’t Bicep Part 2, and the pair show little interest in emulating past successes. Isles is an album caught between euphoric escapism and melancholic introspection; that it’s seeing the light of day in the midst of a pandemic is fitting. Opener “Atlas” exemplifies this contrast, its burbling central hook and ethereal vocal sample drawing the listener back into Bicep’s world with a bittersweet update of their established sound.

Long-time listeners will be pleased to know that their love of crate-digging samples hasn’t gone anywhere, from Israeli artist Ofra Haza providing the foundations for “Atlas”, to “Apricots” incorporating both a Malawian field recording and a snippet of a Bulgarian choir into its sparse musical makeup. Isles pulls from diverse scenes and genres seemingly at will, folding all sorts of inspiration into an album that’s mostly primed for the dancefloor – the exception being the beatless “Lido”, which pushes choral elegance to the fore on a track that offers a marked contrast to their usual fare. “Sundial” takes its cue from both Bollywood film music and Irish folk, combining a sense of wistfulness with rushing percussion on one of the record’s most energetic moments.

As they’ve pushed their exploratory sound further afield, so too have Bicep moved to incorporate live instrumentation and vocal features into their work. Two of those features offer Clara La San her time in the spotlight; on “X”, her voice floats over the top of a mid-album peak, a comparatively busy track that sets the mind racing with thoughts of how it might translate to the stage, while “Saku” nods toward both the rhythmic experimentation of IDM and the plaintive side of R&B in what is arguably the album’s most direct offering, and her vocals effortlessly express the latter. “Rever”, meanwhile, can be seen as the flipside of “X” – the two tracks are in the same key and share melodic ideas – but the former’s approach is more atmospheric than its predecessor, trading elation for pensive reflection, aided in its pursuit of the latter by an appearance from Canadian cellist and composer Julia Kent.

The duo choose not to overcook their newest 10-track batch, and while that may be seen by some as holding back, the album itself has been dubbed the ‘home listening version’ of the record – they’re economical with their compositions for a reason. Given that they had 150 demos to work with as a starting point, there’s no doubt that these tracks will continue to evolve behind the scenes until the pair’s acclaimed stage show makes its return. Isles is a headphones record as colourful as its artwork, and should be enjoyed to the fullest on its own terms, the work of an act in constant flux who refuse to rest on their laurels.