The progression from record collector to DJ to artist is a common one in dance music: the difference with Northern Irish duo Bicep is they have done it all in public. They first emerged 12 years ago among a plethora of late-noughties bloggers devoted to digging up musical obscurities of varying hues and presenting them to the public. Their Feel My Bicep blog began as a means of keeping in touch with record-collecting friends from Belfast who’d gone off to university. Within a couple of years, it was attracting 100,000 visitors a month, and begat a DJing career, a Rinse FM radio show, a record label, a succession of remixes and productions and, ultimately, a deal with Ninja Tune, the venerable dance label run by Coldcut, who presumably recognised kindred spirits.
The early posts on their blog are long gone, but you get a flavour of its eclecticism from a mammoth 67-hour-long Bicep playlist on Spotify, where Angie Stone rubs shoulders with Aphex Twin and Odyssey, and the Ohio Players coexist with 90s house, punishing Basic Channel techno, drum’n’bass and the new wave of jazz. It doesn’t feel a million miles removed from the kind of eclectic musical connections Coldcut made on their celebrated 70 Minutes of Madness mix album and Solid Steel radio show in the mid-90s.
The Spotify playlist also includes Leftfield and Underworld, which also makes sense when you listen to Isles. It isn’t a particularly retro-sounding album – although anyone who remembers Future Sound of London’s 1991 hit Papua New Guinea and Orbital’s Halcyon is going to feel a certain degree of nostalgia when confronted with opening track Atlas’s cocktail of syncopated beats, ineffably melancholy wordless female vocal samples and warm electronics – but in its scope and ambition, what it most obviously recalls are the blockbusting crossover dance albums of the mid-90s. Like Leftfield’s Leftism, Underworld’s dubnobasswithmyheadman, the Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole and Orbital’s Snivilisation, it offers music rooted in underground club culture: you variously catch rhythmic and sonic echoes of drum’n’bass and its precursor hardcore (Rever), Detroit techno (X) and UK garage (Saku). But it attempts to function as home listening rather than a collection of dancefloor-facing tracks.
It’s clearly the ideal juncture in history to attempt something like this, home listening being all we’ve got for the foreseeable future, but coming up with stuff that works equally well on and off the dancefloor isn’t the easiest trick to perform. One danger is that you end up with music that sounds dilettantish, dabbling in sub-genres for the sake of variety. Another is that you sand off too many edges, apply too thick a layer of gloss and end up with something that floats tastefully but unobtrusively in the background rather than grabbing the listener’s attention: something we’ve frankly already got more than enough of in the era of Spotifycore and playlists curated not to thrill or surprise but lull you into never hitting the fast-forward button.
Bicep pull it off with considerable aplomb. Isles’s melodies are lush or wistfully melancholic, but the beats are too tough and driving for its contents to be mistaken for something you’d play at a dinner party. They arrive with a metallic sheen on X and a distorted crunch on Apricots; even the soft-toned Cazenove is underpinned by a rhythm track that fidgets nervily, the bass drum landing unexpectedly. The electronic tones frequently have a cossetting warmth, but it’s disrupted equally frequently: Sundial gradually piles on the reverb until the end result is a bizarre kind of eerie euphoria; X sounds increasingly fuzzy and seasick. Saku, with its guest appearance by bedroom R&B artist Clara La San, is the only vocal track: her delivery is airy, the tune sweet enough to recall the pop-garage of the early noughties, but the synths around it have something of a John Carpenter movie soundtrack about them.
The patchwork of influences is stitched neatly together by recurring stylistic themes, not least the abundance of sampled vocals: Apricots features both a 1958 recording of traditional Malawian singers and a Bulgarian choir. The duo have suggested that the global music samples are intended to conjure up the multicultural racket of daily life in their adopted home of east London, and you could, if you were so inclined, read something political into that: an album called Isles, made by two Northern Irish emigres, celebrating London’s cultural diversity, released a couple of weeks after Brexit. Equally, you could find something very much of the moment in another of its prevalent sounds: there’s an awful lot of echo on Isles, which frequently makes it feel as if it’s playing in a cavernous, empty club. Or you could just put it on headphones and lose yourself in it, treating it simply as a pleasure, which it is.
This week Alexis listened to
A beautiful reimagining of classic mid-60s soul, from an LA trio also responsible for a fantastic Adam Curtis-inspired short film.