Label: Ninja Tune
Release Date: 22nd January 2021
"With their hauntology comes new contexts and new promises, pining not for early ‘90s rave but the warehouses and basements and stained living room carpets that wait for us in the 2020s. We’ll be together again soon, they say, bored to tears by someone at afters who won’t shut up about ‘Glue’."
The good people of Twitter once called Bicep’s 2017 smash-hit ‘Glue’ “Wonderwall for people who like ket”. The song spread like a (*cough*) virus, from studio to rave to house party to the lips of that one guy at afters who hogs the queue.
It’s difficult to talk about Bicep without first acknowledging why ‘Glue’ struck such a chord. Its melancholy nostalgia mourns the unfulfilled promises of rave’s golden era. But in 2017, Bicep’s pining for UK dance music history played an important role in the present day. They helped bring the genre to a new generation of bright-eyed young people, ready to experience the same profound sense of togetherness, make the same mistakes and eventually pass on the baton to their own successors. How very different it feels listening in 2021.
It’s a difficult moment in history to release an album of dance music. But perhaps re-adjusting the scope of rave-nostalgia from thirty years to ten months is appropriate for today’s indefinite isolation. On ‘Apricot’ for example, the winning formula of sighing chord sequences, squelching synth-melodies and washed out female vocals is a welcome familiarity.
It’s certainly more effective here than on ‘Atlas’, a weak choice of lead single and album opener. It’s a decent tune but provokes neither the mournful pangs of ‘Glue’ nor the newfound energy of later tracks on Isles. ‘Cazenove’ similarly sounds as if it’s started halfway through, only later developing into something more interesting.
Soon, however, the record starts to venture elsewhere. Gone are the bright lights of the club. The boom of the kick drum and crack of the snare ricochet off walls in now-empty warehouses. Isles becomes like a rave hosted at Innsmouth’s Masonic Hall: gradually, the dreariness gives way to something darker.
Collaborations with Clara La San really bang. ‘Saku’ is the first milestone for this change of pace. Its vocals are clearer, its garage beat punchier, its sub-bass more cavernous. The twanging arpeggios and wall-like climax of ‘X’ continue to lead you down this darker path. ‘Rever’, with Julia Kent, sees the record at its most Burial-esque, awash with strange sounds that border then non-musical.
Throughout Isles, I was consistently reminded of what Mark Fisher’s wrote about the then-anonymous South-London producer’s self-titled release; that it was “haunted by what once was, what could have been, and – most keenly – what could still happen.” Bicep stand on the shoulders of giants. Their tension between dance and dismay has its roots in Burial’s lost futures. Nevertheless, this idea is ripe for development now the nightlife which has been a life-blood for Britain’s youth for decades is now cruelly out of reach.
Isles reaches a frenetic peak with ‘Sundial’. Its sampled, ghost-note heavy breakbeat helps bridge the album into an acoustic sound world reminiscent of early jungle but ornamented with Bicep’s trademark serenity. This atmosphere carries the record through its final leg, to more familiar exhaling sound design on ‘Fir’ and ‘Hawk’.
Although it lacks the single power of its predecessor, Isles is significantly better structured and much more ambitious. With their hauntology comes new contexts and new promises, pining not for early ‘90s rave but the warehouses and basements and stained living room carpets that wait for us in the 2020s. We’ll be together again soon, they say, bored to tears by someone at afters who won’t shut up about ‘Glue’.
Words by Charlie Ridler.
24th January 2021.