Switched On – Bicep: Isles (Ninja Tune)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

Isles is the second album from Bicep, the Belfast-born and London based duo of Matt McBriar and Andy Ferguson, who dazzled us with their self-titled album in 2017. On it they showed a love of early rave music and an ability to channel it into futuristic beats and soundscapes. This resulted in a number of high profile advert appearances (BMW especially) but also translates into a brilliant live show.

When live gigs do return, this ‘home listening version’ of their second album will find new impetus in front of an audience, with Bicep always keen to give their fans the biggest show possible.

What’s the music like?

In truth it would be impossible to recreate the primal thrill of Bicep’s debut, which was all about having the maximum possible impact on the dancefloor. Yet Isles runs its predecessor close, retaining the distinctive clipped beats and riffs that make the duo’s music instantly recognisable, and adding some imaginative samples and vocals drawn from international sources.

Second single Apricots is a prime example, powered by a double sample of traditional Malawian singers recorded in 1958 and a song from the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Choir. Along with Atlas it runs close to the sound of their first album, with enjoyable kinetic energy and early house highs. Meanwhile Sundial uses Asha Boshle and Bhupinder Singh’s Jab Andhera Hota Hai, a sublime piece of work catching the dazzling rays of our star.

The clipped beats find an ideal complement in the vocals of Clara La San on Saku, a singer who manages the balance of being quite subdued but capturing an underground garage sound. The two really feed off each other. Vocals of a very different kind inform the beatless Lido, based on a sample of a motet by Italian renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo.

These examples show just how broad the reach of McBriar and Ferguson can be, a cosmopolitan approach that keeps a healthy edge to the music and gives the album a healthy variety.

Does it all work?

Pretty much everything does. Just on occasion it would be good to see Bicep develop their source material a bit more, as in a track like Rever, with Julia Kent, which has a really good sample but doesn’t push on as much as you might expect. Elsewhere though, when the beats ping around like images on a 1980s video game, Bicep are on great form.

Is it recommended?

Yes. While Isles may not have their immediate thrills and spills of the Bicep debut, it still has plenty going for it. A fine follow-up which shows them to be great beatsmiths on record – and let’s hope it’ not too long before we get to see them live as well.

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Playlist – Julia Kent: Cello Mix

It gives us great pleasure to welcome cellist and composer Julia Kent for the provision of a cello-themed playlist for Arcana:

In just over an hour of music she demonstrates a wonderful scope of modern ways of writing for the instrument. These range from the Cello Sonata of David Baker, which appeared on Sony Classical’s Black Composer series in the 1970s (for review on Arcana shortly), to music from Lori Goldston, Peter Gregson, Jo Quail and Resina.

In the course of an hour the cello moves between music of grace (Helen Money, Simon McCorry) and outright menace (Okkyung Lee, Philip Sheppard), not stopping at the same place or mood twice – and on occasion bringing other instruments on board. As a lapsed cellist myself I can declare myself astonished at the breadth of writing there is for the instrument currently.

Sit back and enjoy the cello’s versatility in an hour which I guarantee will take you to several special places!

On record: Julia Kent – Temporal (The Leaf Label)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Canadian cellist-composer Julia Kent turns to expressive dance for inspiration on her fifth album Temporal. Much of the music here has its origins in the theatre, and looks for a more organic approach than the relatively confrontational Asperities, her previous album for The Leaf Label in 2015.

What’s the music like?

In a word, emotional. The cello has properties unlike any other instrument, an ability to function as bass, harmony or treble – and all combine here to heart-melting effect. Kent uses the distinctive timbres of the instrument’s ‘open’ strings to create a mood in Last Hour Story, the expansive opening piece, but when the bass drops the full range of sound is fully revealed.

The music does indeed dance, often slowly – but the cello takes the lead with probing melodies from its rich tones. The use of subtle vocal effects around the edges only enhances the human connection. While Imbalance uses more electronics, with a fluttering figure from what sounds like a hi-hat, it cuts to the wide open Conditional Futures, a glorious sonic panorama.

When other instruments do appear, such as the soft piano in Crepuscolo, they are at a respectful distance, the cello kept as the foreground ‘lead’.

Does it all work?

Absolutely. Julia Kent knows intimately the potential of a cello not just to sing but also to provide harmonic substance and rhythmic impetus. All elements come together beautifully here.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. Temporal represents a good way in to Julia Kent’s music but is also a natural pinnacle of her work so far. It repays both foreground and background listening, though the former is encouraged so you can get the extent of the intricacies in and around her cello. Once heard a few times, Temporal will become a permanent fixture.

Further listening

You can listen to Temporal below:

Meanwhile Julia has contributed a cello-themed playlist to Arcana which you can listen to here: