Review: Bicep 'Bicep'

This has been a long time coming. Andy Ferguson and Matt McBriar, better known as electronic music duo Bicep, have been knocking around for nigh on a decade now. The ‘band’ formed in 2009 (can they be categorised as a band? I’m going with it…) but when I first heard them it was 2010. The release was ‘Darwin’ on Brooklyn-based Throne of Blood Records, a monster of a track whose piano chord stabs at 2 mins 30 give me goose bumps even now. Further releases followed, both on their own label and Will Saul’s Aus Music. The now infamous ‘Visions of Love’ was another immediate hit, despite the legal battle that followed (no time for that now but it’s worth a Google if you have a mo).

Disparate single releases, and intermittent EP drops are the historic fabric of the electronic music genre, and Bicep have historically been no different. Recently though, more and more electronic artists have been eschewing the EP, and replacing it with a full-length album release. This isn’t altogether new – Four Tet’s been releasing albums for the last sixteen years – but it’s definitely a thing more now than ever, all thanks to the likes of Bonobo, Dusky, Maya Jane Coles, and countless more. With their self-titled album, Bicep have joined the ranks. The question is: did they need to?

Much of Bicep’s career has rested on their capacity for selection. Not only did their early releases demonstrate their skill in producing big room bangers, they clearly had excellent ears for disco and house too. Their blog Feel My Bicep has long been a go-to for music nerds and newbies alike, the former logging on to unearth an Italo classic or an edit; the latter because of the boys’ consistent selection of good-time tunes.

Despite their success earned through their revamping, editing and crate-digging abilities, Ferguson and McBriar had more to give, and when their live show debuted in 2015 everything changed. The DJ sets (whilst still blisteringly good – their all-night show at XOYO at the end of their residency remains the greatest party atmosphere I have been witness to) became auxiliary to a purer kind of performance. The same year they released ‘Just’, a game-changer in terms of sound. Simple pads, claps, hats and kicks where replaced by drumroll snares and a falsetto jingle that resonates on an emotional level only lightly brushed on previous releases. The public demanded more. And more is what we’ve got.

From the outset, it is made plainly obvious that Bicep is a passion project created by two childhood friends with a love of all things electronic. The influences are scattered, and it’s clear that even the duo’s five-hour playlist of tracks that have influenced this LP is just the tip of the iceberg.

The album starts strong. Opening track ‘Orca’ welcomes us onto our journey with bright staccato stabs. Cue a harsh, warped break beat and it seems like we’re about to hit club territory. We don’t quite make it there, though, and instead divert to an immersive listening party for one. The following ‘Glue’ is just as successful, and although could be considered an echo of ‘Just’, I think that’s the point: ‘Just’ saw Bicep putting their feelers out, using it to test the waters. Thanks to Jamie XX and his BBC-broadcasted Glastonbury set, the tune became a summer anthem and the green light was given for the Bicep boys to make the analogue music they wanted to make. ‘Vale’, ‘Rain’ and ‘Opal’ bear out the logic behind that decision; the latter reminiscent of Joe’s Hessle Audio releases and taking the award for the album’s best track. The shorter ‘Vespa’ offers one of a few aural breaks with no percussion and a sweeping sample of someone questioning genres and stereotypes.

The album’s analogue and synthesiser-driven aesthetic feels honest and authentic, but sadly a lot of the tracks are left lacking. ‘Kites’, ‘Ayaya’ and ‘Spring’ offer little in the way of substance, often feeling light and repetitive. ‘Drift’ is more sonically muscular – its formidable start echoing Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s Stranger Things OST and even Disasterpiece’s compositions for It Follows – but its dark, brooding intro would be better suited as the opening one of Bicep’s iconic live shows, rather than hanging loose in the middle of an album.

Therein lies the album’s deepest flaw: in trying to straddle the worlds of live and recorded music, a lot of the tracks feel under-baked. The charm of a live Bicep show is in its inherent unpredictability - two masters of electronic studio equipment work tirelessly to create seamless natural music in front of an adoring fan base – but when they try to capture the magic of their live sets on record the spontaneity is lost, and with it its charm.

Although I’m certain some of the tracks on Bicep would go down an absolute treat in a live set, I can’t help but feel that the duo’s self-titled first album doesn’t really need to exist. Instead, they could have released the cream of the crop in a series of EPs, which would have allowed for tighter curation of the track list, and prevented the use of the best tracks to conspicuously book-end an otherwise pretty underwhelming album. Bicep’s live show sets them apart from the crowd, it’s a shame they felt the need to follow that same crowd by releasing an LP.