It’s tiring to consider an album as a ‘mood’ rather than something to actively engage in, particularly when the mood an album like Isles evokes is somewhere between boredom and frustration. It’s a house album that flirts with being straight-up ambient whilst never taking much interest in committing, and meanwhile it never does anything dynamic enough to justify its length and lack of variety.
Track to track, there’s little to no change in the instrumentation, structure, effects, or approach, and the result is sheer uniformity. What separates opener “Atlas” from “Sundial”, besides the order and tempo of their shared elements? Try as I have, I can’t figure it out, and I’ve settled on feeling that every track on the album is essentially drawn from one original, chopped up, and glued back together. Any resultant wrinkles have been smoothed out by an immaculate approach to production, which is technically impressive but sonically mind-numbing. Any personality that it might have had feels like it’s been entirely sucked out. An elegant platform to build on with no meaningful construction to follow.
In sounding so naggingly similar across Isles, each track suffers similar problems. The album’s melodies are uninspiring and drawn back in the mix such that they never come up beyond the surface. Its synthesised vocals, sitting so persistently at the back of most of its tracks, are pleasant but anonymous. Dynamics and variation across each track are fleeting and easily forgotten, and it’s compounded by the fact that most of the tracks stretch beyond five minutes for little to no reason. Every track is overlong and too quick to show its hand. After 30 seconds I’ve heard everything each cut has to offer; after three minutes I’m ready to move on; after five minutes I’m getting wound up.
Surely this is the antithesis of a serene, ‘home listening’ experience. Why not just give us the ‘live’ version rather than hollow it out and offer some patronising epithet about the kind of experience listeners want when they’re stuck at home? Frankly, I’m bored enough already.
4 out of 10
Isles is a gleaming, whirring android of a soundtrack. Too bad, then, that it’s supposed to be an album. It’s hard to escape the feeling you’ve dropped into Bicep’s world in medias res, with unheard hours of polished, passive electronic experiments stretching beyond its ‘start’ and its ‘end’. That’s an approach that can work, of course. As Brian Eno so aptly put it in the linear notes of Ambient 1: Music for Airports, the goal for a project like this is often to be ‘as ignorable as it is interesting.’ The fatal flaw in that philosophy, as we’ve seen time and again, is that if you’re not Brian Eno the end product often winds up being plain old ignorable.
As ever with albums like this I feel I should add the caveat that if you like electronic music that’s ‘good in the background,’ this is a fine album. Sleek, modern, and 50-minutes long, Isles has nothing on Boards of Canada or Aphex Twin but it’s a sound serving of new tunes all the same - a sonic vat for your brain. There just isn’t much to think or feel about it once you’re in. And to those of you saying, ‘But Fred, you’ve reviewed an actual soundtrack album before and given it an eight,’ keep those facts to yourself. This is just words on a screen. I can’t answer you.
5 out of 10
Bicep followed their 2017, critically acclaimed debut with an extensive world tour. Then a break in 2019. Unbeknownst to the electronic duo, it would be longer than expected, with the worldwide pandemic hitting them in 2020 along with the rest of us.
Their return to the studio, Isles, is therefore understandably different in its mood. Matt McBriar’s widely pulled quote that this new album is the ‘home listening version’ and that ‘the live version will be much, much harder’ speaks to the shift in sound. A lot of the music here feels as though it’d pair well with misty, night time drives. Pensive, cavernous and isolated; tracks roll and evolve their ideas in slow-motion.
“Atlas” opens the tracklist with an ethereal cry out into a seemingly endless space as its synth line swoops and whips around, accompanied by firm bass stamps. The cry adds a melancholic, even mournful tone to the whole track and it’s a feeling revisited throughout. Clara La San’s vocal feature on “Saku” centres around being alone and needing to feel something again and the track’s wavering central chords layered with whirling strings certainly complement the feeling.
There are other highlights, too. “X” opens with a Kraftwerkian kinetic motif and evolves with wave after wave of horizonless, sweeping synths. “Lido” is a beatless interlude of a track that leans into ambient influences and creates a smokey atmosphere and a pregnant pause that leaves the listener in suspense. “Hawk” is a pacy closing track with a twitching, erratic melody that does an excellent job of getting my head nodding.
But ultimately the suspense that Isles builds through many of its tracks rarely have the pay off they deserve. Tracks swirl about at a slower pace than in Bicep’s debut, and it often feels as though in creating a ‘home version’ of their music they have instead cut out the excitement. While the duo has always focused on simply arranged electronica, here it can feel like a ‘Bicep-lite’ rather than a ‘Bicep at home’, with diminished variety and texture across the board.
I’m still looking forward to a ‘much, much harder’ version of some of these tracks, and more from Bicep in general. However, Isles feels like the musical manifestation of the wait we’re all enduring before we can return to live music.
6 out of 10