Published Jan 19, 2021Irish duo Bicep debuted strongly in 2017 with their self-titled album — a confident mix of continental trance melodicism and urban grit that earned them many an accolade. Inspired by their relocation to London and its cultural diversity, their second outing, Isles, offers a slicker, more ambitious version of their debut — more layers, more vocals, more focus, and crisper, harder-hitting production. There are perhaps signs that, as deft and well-judged as it is, the duo's style might only take them so far, but by and large this is a very good sophomore effort that makes good on their early promise.
Isles starts invitingly with the classic '90s ambient pads of "Atlas," setting the stage with a nimble lead melody that slots in tightly to the first of many expertly-crafted breakbeats. Almost every track following has something to offer as well — lead single "Apricots," with its mysterious vocal sample and affecting synths; "Saku," giving solid Disclosure vibes thanks to guest vocalist Clara La San; the imposing synth line of "X," which sounds like an unused sequence from Daft Punk's Tron soundtrack; and "Hawk," which closes the album with perhaps its most unusual melody, made distinct by some subtly dissonant lead flourishes that catch the ear for a memorable send-off.
While details like these definitely elevate Isles, the duo's formula does wear thin periodically. Like a lot of trance, most of the album's tracks start and end with the same four-note melody, with the beat fated to drop out at some point to make way for an equally destined fading-in of another element lately absent before the beat returns. The best trance, progressive or otherwise, makes the most of these standard transitions with dynamic builds and breakdowns — a luxury afforded by its quicker tempo and driving momentum. In comparison, Bicep can sound a bit slow and plodding at times, shuffling the same building blocks around without the urgency and epic stakes to make the shell game interesting in and of itself.
The formula certainly has its merits though, and Bicep bring them to the fore better than most on Isles, and all with an appealingly late-night, cosmopolitan flair, where ghostly fragments of Hindi, Turkish pop or Bulgarian choirs are just as likely to hover among the neon synths as the usual breathy trance sirens. It gives the album a bustling, urban energy that very much works in its favour, even if its style might slightly outweigh its substance sometimes. (Ninja Tune)