REVIEW: Bicep – Isles

Anticipation can be a killer. When it’s already an album you’re excited for (and have pre-ordered) and you’re down to review it, the anticipation is even higher. And so on Friday I found myself thinking, beautiful purple sleeved neon orange vinyl in hand, “why am I not enjoying this?”.

With reviews like this there can be a tendency to overthink rather than just take in the music. The critic becomes simply critical. I’ve successfully avoided this so far by not writing anything about the actual music. I need to stop, listen and just enjoy.

Isles is clearly missing the dancefloors it should be played on, and it is unavoidably reluctant to accompany you at home instead (not that we have a choice right now). The minimal effort of leaving it on in the background, while enjoyable, doesn’t reward you. Indeed you may find your attention start to drift around three quarters of the way through. Instead, play it loud like it deserves, get on your feet, and try and imagine you’re out. This is easier said than done though on an album which, for reasons both in and out of its control, doesn’t reach the euphoric highs of its predecessor, Bicep’s self-titled debut.

Bicep’s sound on Isles is more mature, more focused, edgier, dare I say it, even more commercial. It’s only a small step forward from their first album, but you can see the Bicep boys starting to experiment with new things here and there. The samples this time are from Bulgaria as well as Bollywood. There are some new tinges of dubstep and a different quality lent by the vocals of Clara La San, who shines on ‘Saku’ and ‘X’. I was fortunate enough to get a copy of the 3LP orange vinyl edition. ‘Siena’, again featuring Clara La San the first track on the bonus LP, is more akin to what Bicep’s first album did brilliantly and bridges the gap between the two bodies of work. 

The first seven or eight tracks are fantastic. But for me, the main disappointment on Isles is that towards the end there’s not a huge amount of variety. At worst you could even say the construction of the tracks starts to feel formulaic. The dembow-lite beat reappears again and again as the tracks build in the same way. As do the soft vocal ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’. Tracks like ‘Rever’, ‘Fir’ and ‘Hawk’, start and finish all too abruptly, and would benefit from being mixed together. The very successful tracks earlier on the album, ‘Atlas’ and ‘Apricots’ for instance, work because there is plenty going on with two or sometimes three counter-melodies and polyrhythms alongside the sample and beats that form the core of their sound, rising and falling throughout. And when you know there are better bonus tracks, like ‘Siena’, relegated to side E, it is a little frustrating.

So, is it me? Is it the album? Is it the constricted life we find ourselves in? I suspect it’s all three. I’ve certainly not been able to avoid the trap of being critical.

But for it all its flaws and everything I’ve said, I still love Isles. There are enough great tunes here to keep me coming back, even to the bonus tracks. Isles perfectly captures our collective feeling right now, with the way of life we were used to peeking over a distant horizon, yet remaining tantalisingly out of reach. Let’s hope that one day soon, this impressive duo can deliver more of their addictive sound, that takes us to, rather than teases, where we want to be.

Words by James Spearing

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