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.



Switched On – Julianna Barwick: Healing Is A Miracle (Ninja Tune)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Julianna Barwick has enjoyed a near-constant stream of productivity in the last decade, but for many reasons Healing Is A Miracle feels like a defining moment. Apart from being her first album for the Ninja Tune family it marks the point where, after 16 years, she moves from East Coast to West, from New York to Los Angeles.

The title is a reference to the ability of the human body to recover itself after sustaining damage, Barwick marvelling at the way cuts and bruises heal themselves – and it appears to be a metaphor for the next stage of her life too. The recording methodology was also different, using monitors instead of headphones for the first time, which proved a revelation.

Healing Is A Miracle includes three collaborations, each with a close friend.

What’s the music like?

Barwick makes some of the most emotive ambient music you can imagine. While some producers opt for the distanced approach, allowing their music all the room it needs to operate away from human contact, Healing Is A Miracle offers further evidence of a rare ability to make ambient music right from the heart.

Despite the intimacy she achieves with the vocal material in particular, her studies in reverberation have resulted in enormous, cathedral-like textures. Inspirit, the first track on the album, is a softly recurring chant but with a big, surrounding echo, and when Barwick adds the bass sounds to the mix the music stops you in your tracks with its heart stopping beauty.

The collaborations are really nicely judged. Jónsi’s voice works in close harmony with Barwick on In Light, the Sigur Rós vocalist just below the melody but closely matched, before the big beats open the music outwards, seemingly toward the stars. Oh, Memory has a greater delicacy in the company of Mary Lattimore, its weightless vocals hanging on the wind, while Nod, with Nosaj Thing, builds layers on a breathy loop before adding beats, after which it pans out again to a consoling coda.

The title track has long, sustained keyboard sounds that hang on just a bit longer than the vocals, giving an even greater feeling of space. Flowers has striking sonorities, scaling mountainous heights but with an earthbound bass presence too, which grows to take over the track completely.

Does it all work?

Yes. With Julianna Barwick the listener really does inhabit a whole new world, and if escapism or mental clarity is what you are searching for then you have definitely come to the right place.

Is it recommended?

Wholeheartedly. Even within the output of one of the most consistent ambient artists, Healing Is A Miracle is a touchstone, an album where everything falls into its natural place. For an emotive out of body experience, you would really struggle to do better.




Switched On – A Winged Victory For The Sullen: The Undivided Five (Ninja Tune)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

The Undivided Five marks a key point in the album career of A Winged Victory For The Sullen. The duo, Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie, already had impressive musical CVs before uniting as a group eight years ago, O’Halloran with his solo work and Wiltzie both in a solo capacity and as one half of acclaimed instrumental duo Stars Of The Lid.

Since their inception AWVFTS, as they can also be known, have grown a reputation for intense instrumental music and atmospheric live shows. Their late-night Prom with Nils Frahm in 2015 drew admiration, while their soundtrack work for Iris and God’s Own Country has shown their suitability for the big screen.

The Undivided Five, however, is their first ‘artist only’ album since the Atomos album of 2014, and marks the start of a new chapter at Ninja Tune. The number ‘five’ is significant – it represents a circle of five women of which a recently deceased friend was a member. It also resonates with the significance to the duo of their key musical interval, the perfect fifth.

What’s the music like?

Subtly powerful. From the very first strains of Our Lord Debussy it is clear this is an extremely meaningful album to the pair. One of its themes is different strains of ‘goodbye’ – Keep It Dark, Deutschland for O’Halloran’s time in Berlin, as he moves to Iceland – then Adios, Florida, which would appear to be more relevant to Wiltzie and his location in Brussels, then Aqualung, Motherfucker, a tribute to their recently passed close friend.

Loss is a factor in this music, the duo also unexpectedly losing a close friend in the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson last year. Perhaps because of this there is a barely concealed tension running through the music, which breaks cover at times but essentially powers the slow, strong and meaningful chord progressions.

The ability of the pair to make a great deal of substance from the most innocuous of musical cells is deeply impressive, and is very carefully thought through. Colour is very important to the music, but so is space, each track having presence in its outer frequencies but leaving plenty of space in the middle for the listener.

Our Lord Debussy is superb, growing slowly but surely from its elegant piano cell, the piano itself driving a chant-like piece of music as it mirrors the composer Debussy’s ability to replace melody with harmony. It is briefly reminiscent of some of the soundtrack work of Thomas Newman in its ability to slow time and space, creating a distinct sound world, but the development of the music is too individual for those comparisons to stay.

Two compositions stand out for their instrumental solos – The Slow Descent Has Begun, with a solemn violin solo, and Aqualung, Motherfucker, with a deeply poignant line for horn. This pair form the centrepiece of the album, with the following A Minor Fifth Is Made Of Phantoms offering a little resolve in its organ-like timbres.

The album’s stately progress continues with Adios, Florida, which falls over the edge in heartbreaking fashion at its end, and The Rhythm Of A Dividing Pair, a more consonant and peaceful work. Keep It Dark, Deutschland finds O’Halloran in consoling mood at the piano.

Does it all work?

Yes. This must have been a difficult album to make for O’Halloran and Wiltzie, but – as their band name implies – this is a band that galvanizes great strength from adversity. They do so here in music of rarefied atmosphere and latent power.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The Undivided Five takes their output up a level, expanding its possibilities and giving notice that A Winged Victory For The Sullen are getting better and better. This is their most effective and meaningful album to date, but the signs are it won’t be long until they go even further and better.



Floating Points releases new album ‘Crush’

For the first time in four years, Floating Points – aka Sam Shepherd – is releasing an album.

For those who love to anticipate a book on the strengh of its cover, Crush looks like it will be a remarkable listen indeed. The signs are good, too – with three peaks of swirling electronica already made available in the last few months. These were capped by Anasickmodular, whose video Shepherd posted a couple of days ago:

The highly acclaimed video for Last Bloom is full of colour, reflecting the accelerated growth of the music:

Meanwhile LesAlpx gets straight down to action with an urgent beat, its video a set of some of the most colourful bubbles you could imagine:

If they take your fancy, head to the Floating Points Bandcamp site to explore the album further.

As a companion piece, Shepherd’s contribution to the Late Night Tales compilation series is highly recommended – a chance to broaden your mind with some after hours treats!

In concert – Actress and the London Contemporary Orchestra at the Barbican

Actress (above) and the London Contemporary Orchestra

Barbican Hall, London / Wednesday 10 February 2016

This intriguing collection of musical thought had three aims. The first was to draw on a long-held ambition of Darren Cunningham, to work with an orchestra under his Actress pseudonym, while the second and third celebrated – or rather illustrated – the ‘brutalist’ architecture of the Barbican and the data readings behind the LAGEOS (Laser Geodynamics) satellite. Into all of these blueprints, curated by Boiler Room, were fed the music of Actress – a potent blend of techno, soul and dark electronica that lends itself to classical structures and instruments. In new arrangements and pieces Actress and Hugh Brunt, conductor and co-Artistic Director of the London Contemporary Orchestra, found a meeting point of all these elements, presenting them to the Barbican with video artist Nic Hamilton.

They called the collision Momentum, a banner symbolised by a circular object that initially resembled a giant glitterball but was in fact the spacecraft used in the LAGEOS missions. In practice it rotated at a much slower pace, responding to Cunningham’s beats – if indeed there were beats at all.


There was an air of tension from the start of the performance, with a long period of silence before the music began. Even then it only gradually crept into the consciousness, and with the lights down low a feeling of forced ambience crept over the audience, restful but not relaxed in the way earlier Aphex Twin can work. Slowly Cunningham built through Lagos and Momentum, two new tracks, his set already clearly conceived on a larger scale.

Brunt’s arrangements for a string quartet of violin, viola, cello and double bass were striking, the instruments softly voiced to begin with but using a wide vibrato to make the centre of pitch far less certain. Oliver Coates’ cameo on a detuned cello was darkened by the use of a curious, semi-elliptical bow. The harp sprinkled planetary dust on the strings through the hands of Victoria Lester, while Hamilton’s astronomical backdrop helped create space in the closed environment.

As the audience began to fidget a breaking point was nearly reached, emphatically punctured by the volleys of Galya Beat, kick drums thrown from the pads of Sam Wilson’s machine. From here the music had greater power and caught the attention, the arrangements enhancing the beauty of Ascending, the harp and manipulated piano twinkling at the top of the sonic pile, while Piano Scrapes worked with subtle humour and more imaginative textures through the strings and the clarinet of Harry Cameron Parry.

Elsewhere Actress worked with claustrophobic backdrops, bringing the concrete maze of Hamilton’s Barbican video work to life. The strings provided essential colour to the largely grey backdrop of the thick but rather lush keyboards, themselves ambient but restless as before. The imaginative scoring included the creative use of a plastic bag in the percussion section.

Though it was a relatively small London Contemporary Orchestra on this occasion – much smaller than the forces used for Jonny Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood recently – it was used with imagination and flair by Cunningham and Brunt, the resulting music of substance and structure. Rather like the Barbican, in fact – together with a relative lack of pure emotion in the more calculated sections.

It would be great to see Actress flexing his muscles some more in the fascinating area in which he finds himself, bringing forms of music face to face with each other without anything sounding contrived. Future collaborations are surely inevitable; they are greatly anticipated!

Actress played: Lagos, Momentum, Galya Beat, Chaos Rain I-II, Ascending, Piano Scrapes, Surfer’s Hymn, Skygraff (Game Theory), N.E.W., Chasing Numbers, Voodoo, 5 Audio Track I-II, Hubble.

Names of Players:

Actress (electronics), London Contemporary Orchestra – Galya Bisengalieva (violin), Robert Ames (viola), Oliver Coates (cello), Dave Brown (double bass), Harry Cameron Penny (clarinet), Sam Wilson (percussion), Katherine Tinker (piano), Victoria Lester (harp)