Bicep – ‘Isles’ review: trippy electronic tales that transcend the club world

The DJ-producer duo’s introspective yet hard-hitting second album shows just how affecting dance music can be, even (or perhaps especially) right now

In the years since the rise of their 2009-born, disco-gem-uncovering Feel My Bicep blog and 2012’s pumping breakthrough EP ‘Vision Of Love’, Bicep have transformed from underground house-head favourites to festival-headlining daytime-radio-infiltrating sculptors of emotive electronic anthems. Really, though, it’s what Andrew Ferguson and Matthew McBriar had always been building towards.

The London-based Belfast duo’s melodious 2015 single ‘Just’ teased at a more expansive style. But it was their multi-textured debut album – released two years later via Ninja Tune and an unexpected top-20 chart hit – that certified these deep-digging studio heads’ growing reputation as architects of introspective yet kaleidoscopic anthems.

Fast forward to 2021 and, with clubs still shut for obvious reasons, they’ve retooled their second album to suit lockdown listening at home ahead of, they’ve said, a “much harder” live version. Created in their keyboard and drum-filled London studio, ‘Isles’ finds the DJs and producers again fusing atmosphere-building bleeps (the melancholic ‘Cazenove’) with infectious synth lines – ‘Fir’ elicits the eyes-glued rush of watching an edge-of-your-seat epic and feels as though it could explode at any moment.


Israeli artist Ofra Haza’s ‘Love Song’ forms the starting point for cathartic opener ‘Atlas’ and eerie breakbeats rumbler ‘Sundial’, which samples Bollywood song ‘Jab Andhera Hota Hai’, provides a moment of near-ambient contemplation. This is an album that trades on Bicep’s early penchant for obscure vocal samples – see also the eerie, vocal sample-led late-night trance anthem ‘Apricots’, a brilliant recent single.

What’s new this time around, though, is that the boys worked with other live singers and instrumentalists, adding another layer to their tried-and-tested formula. Icy-toned labelmate Clara La San appears twice: the London-based R&B star lends her voice to the movingly nostalgic trip of ‘Saku’ and the heavy and futuristic ‘X’. ‘Rever’, meanwhile, carries a comparatively chilling energy, its chant-like vocal hovering hauntingly over a lightly shuffling mechanic techno beat and affecting cello playing from Canadian cellist and composer Julia Kent. Later, the sci-fi-infused synth whirrs of ominous closer ‘Hawk’ run alongside Korean Tokyo-based artist Machìna’s faint voice, before things rush skywards one last time.

While many in the electronic scene have attempted to imitate Bicep’s signature sound, nobody builds melancholy into colourful trance and techno quite like these Irish mates. As they prove across ‘Isles’’ 10 intricately-crafted tracks (which were whittled down from more than 150 demos), few other artists can conjure up these much-missed moments of patiently rapturous rave ecstasy quite so artfully.


Release date: January 22
Record label:
Ninja Tune

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