The idea of a home-listening record from Bicep feels suspiciously oxymoronic. Like Orbital and Avicii before them, the Belfast-born duo of Matt McBriar and Andy Ferguson are one of those electronic acts designed for the sweeping euphoria of big summer stages. Isles, their second album, should be blowing the cobwebs off the Southern Hemisphere’s festival circuit as you read this. Instead, the pandemic intervened, so Bicep are rolling out a domesticated version of their music, promising a “much, much harder” version of the same material to be delivered in person once it’s safe to tread the boards. No wonder Bicep sounded so miserable on comeback single “Atlas,” a song whose Ofra Haza sample and synth squiggles suggest an (inverted) cross between Richie Hawtin’s F.U.S.E. project and the Sisters of Mercy: the live shutdown has left them like heirs to a knife factory in the age of big soup.
In the best-case scenario, Bicep might have proven themselves to be house music’s own Taylor Swifts, taking their epic bluster down several notches to locate a homely charm that is equally sympathetic to their gifts. In reality, though, you’d be pressed to find significant difference between Isles and Bicep’s eponymous debut album. The new release may push the boat out a little further in search of sample sources, with Malawian polyrhythms and snatches of the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Choir connecting on “Apricots,” but the group’s bread and butter remains cavernous electronica, progressive house, and a scraping of UK garage, underpinned by a strong melodic current. This might sound like a convoluted mix, but Bicep keep their productions simple, linear, and uncluttered. They’re like the anti-100 gecs. Not all that much happens in a Bicep song, and what does is orderly and well signposted.
For many people, this is part of the duo’s charm. Bicep resonate with large audiences precisely because their music is so digestible, like the well-ordered moral structures of a blockbuster film. But this means Bicep walk a perilous line between brilliant and banal. When they get it right and the melodies connect, as on Isles’ epically wistful “X,” they are hugely enjoyable. When they don’t, as on the disappointingly vague “Cazenove,” there’s almost nothing to get your teeth into; their music drifts by in a haze of turbo-charged powder puff.
Isles is at its best when the gloom sinks in. “Atlas” has a wonderfully hangdog feel; “Apricots” is Dead Can Dance deep house; and the liturgical feel of “Lido” suggests monk-friendly German electronica act Enigma. “Saku (feat. Clara La San),” meanwhile, is almost an excellent song: Its vocal melody has a bitter sting of melancholy, like tears drying in a cold winter wind, but the production is too polite, a house-cat version of UK garage that has been neutered and declawed. There’s no rage, little passion and—rather ironically—no muscle.
“Saku”’s frustratingly not-quite-there production is emblematic of the way Isles teeters on the brink of success. There is something confoundingly almost about Bicep: they are almost a great act, almost capable of unleashing vast emotion, and almost on the verge of letting go. But the release never quite arrives. Isles has sparkling moments but it’s all a bit constrained, like a potted plant on a window sill that craves the natural wildness of a garden.
Buy: Rough Trade
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