Belfast boys Bicep have delivered their second album, Isles, at a time when the idea of going to a rave is now a distant memory. Still, the record offers a pertinent reminder of those incredible memories attached to those days in the past and those that one day lies ahead once more. The album arrives just a day after the inevitable cancellation of Glastonbury Festival, which confirms our collective worst fears that it will still be a long old wait before we are back in a field dancing with a cold one in hand.
Isles is the follow-up to their acclaimed 2017 eponymous debut, a record which elevated their status to the UK dance scene’s pantheon. The title of the album deals with growing up in Northern Ireland and the strangeness of being raised in such a divided place. Members Andy Ferguson and Matt McBriar come from different cultural backgrounds but bonded through a love of rave culture. Their debut studio-effort made people sit up and realise that the duo was one of the most exciting acts around, not just in the dance circuit.
They are two dance music connoisseurs who continue to mix this plethora of influences that have soundtracked their friendship and saw them move to London from Belfast over a decade ago in pursuit of their dream. Their journey began as a humble blog called FeelMyBicep in 2008, which quickly became a treasure trove for fans of left-field disco and soon it was attracting over 100,000 visitors a month. Following the blog’s success, then came the record label, the club night and their wondrous DJ sets saw them playing all over the world before landing a deal with Ninja Tune in 2017 to release their debut album.
Whilst the debut album laid out precisely who Bicep was and pulled in influences from different parts of UK dance history onto a tight record, that made for an enthralling listen, it wasn’t as well-rounded as its follow-up. On Isles, they’ve taken it up a notch to produce an utterly cohesive album that flows together effortlessly and is a much-needed as well as a euphoric form of escapism for this present moment in time.
Lead single ‘Atlas’ opens the album as it means to go on and invites the listener into this magnificently curated musical journey that features an array of weird and wonderful sampled vocals from obscure places that all come together on Isles. Rather than looking at the more prominent locations for vocal snippets, Bicep look in areas that others wouldn’t even consider.
Take the hypnotic, ‘Sundial’, the eerie vocals that feature in the track and give the song a dystopian feel taken from the song ‘Jab Andhera Hota Hai’ on the 1973 Bollywood film Raja Rani. ‘Lido’ works as a stunning melancholic interlude in the middle of the record that sets a pace change in Isles before things get trancey on ‘X’ and Bicep deliver yet another left-turn but is linked to the rest of the record through another haunting vocal delivery that underpins the track.
There is a contrast on the record between the two halves, the first section of Isles is brighter and more illuminating, but that doesn’t mean there’s a drop in quality. The second half takes a darker turn, tracks ‘Fir’ and the vigorous album closer ‘Hawk’ arrive after the record has already got you mesmerised in its grasp, willing to be taken anywhere that Bicep wants to take you. The innovative use of vocals and the presence of Ninja Tune label mate Clara La San on tracks gives more depth to their work.
Bicep have stepped it up on Isles and, whilst we can’t enjoy the album in a nightclub setting, that doesn’t matter one jot. It’s a beguiling listen that makes the mind wander to the most blissful places, as well as to desolate locations whilst on the journey. Whilst they’ll be no place to party outside of your house this weekend, you’ll struggle to find any better use of your time than playing Isles on your speaker in the kitchen whilst having a stiff drink or two.