This September brought the release of Bicep’s first full length album. Much awaited, this drew some 18 months of excited speculation, Shazams and badly taken iPhone videos to an end. If you listen to electronic music and aren’t already familiar with the duo, consisting of Andy Ferguson and Matthew McBriar, I can only assume you’ve recently returned from a long term holiday in the Gobi Desert.
While the music itself should be the main consideration in a review, it’s hard to review Bicep without taking into account the superfluous hype that preceded it. Cult status has played a very significant role in the popularity of this album. In this case, I feel it’s important to consider both the music itself and the hype around it in juxtaposition, to fully gauge the quality of the work as well as its potential quality.
First though, the music. In the build up to the release, the duo indicated that much of the album would be better suited to home listening than the dancefloor. This holds true throughout; some tracks such as ‘Aura’, ‘Spring’ and ‘Glue’ have overlap and would fit in well both at home and in the club. ‘Aura’ and ‘Glue’ were to some extent the flagship tracks on this album, making a regular appearance in DJ sets during the last year and a half.
The album does not directly resemble any of the previous dozen or so EPs Bicep have released. Rather, it sounds more like an amalgam of the sounds and styles which have influenced the pair, as well as the FeelMyBicep blog. The influence of early trance, in particular, emanates from much of the album. Not necessarily a bad thing and to be expected, given the pair grew up in Belfast and were regular attendees of Shine’s esteemed parties in their youth.
Certain tracks have unique textures which set them aside from the others: ‘Orca’s’ shimmering melodies, the melancholic pads and the chopped vocal production on ‘Vespa’ and almost abrasive bass on ‘Vale’ to name a few. However, there is a lot of filler on the album; tracks which don’t really have the same draw that encourages the listener to revisit them. As a body of work, the album is respectable, with some great tracks and a few that fall short of the mark. However this, for me, is the crux of the issue and begs the question: Is respectable good enough here?
This is far and away Bicep’s most successful release to date, specifically in terms of the sheer volume of listeners. This vast listener base has been amassed largely through the cult status and hype that now garnishes their name. However, in my view, the hype that landed this album such a wide a reception has also been its downfall.
Arguably, the most obvious culprit here is the internet and the dedicated online communities that exist within it. Thanks to a constant stream of information available in online forums and on social media platforms, fans can follow almost every update that coincides with a project, from the moment of conception. Two robust examples of this are the ‘Identification of Music Group’ on Facebook and the Reddit subpage ‘/r/hiphopheads’ (with only the former being of direct relevance to Bicep).
As the title suggests, the ‘Identification of Music Group’ is a (invite only) group wherein anyone can share recordings from parties they’ve attended in order to identify the music heard in DJ sets and live performances. Looking towards Reddit, the group ‘/r/hiphopheads’, is a page for the sharing and discussion of hip-hop. Both of these play host to thousands of avid users who can connect with other fans who want to immerse themselves in their shared interest.
However connecting so many people with a shared interest and an unbridled curiosity can have unexpected results; as Bicep’s popularity has increased in recent years, so too has the dissection of their DJ sets – to the point that punters knew exactly which tracks were their own, yet to be released, originals. In fact, within the ‘Identification of Music Group’, the phrase ‘unreleased Bicep’ reached meme-level status. Reaching a fever pitch, the phrase eventually resulted in forum bans for anyone who posted with the tagline, whether accurate or not.
At times, even the most inscrutable shred of information can precipitate scientific levels analysis. On ‘/r/hiphopheads’ for example, it is the norm for throwaway comments by artists to be broken down to the letter in threads with thousands of comments. This can work in the artists’ favour of course; Frank Ocean consciously tapped into the hype around his album Blonde AKA Boys Don’t Cry – releasing cryptic hint after hint to fan the flames around the album’s release date. This is essentially a very effective viral marketing campaign, belittling as it may be to call it such.
In these cases, we see the hype take the focus away from the music to some extent. Amateur detective work and speculation from fans can often take the fore. To a degree, putting music on such a pedestal creates unrealistic expectations for what it can deliver.
How can the work live up to its imagined counterpart? The pressure that hype puts on the artist to deliver can suffocate the music during its production and for those enjoying it. ‘Aura’, arguably the most popular track on the Bicep record, was originally 9 minutes long and beatless. The finished product is far more club ready and much less abstract, at the request of their manager.
To say whether this decision was directly as a result of the pressure that ‘hype’ put on the record to wow its audiences can only be speculated upon. However, given the broad range of styles and textures Bicep showcase on their blog and cite as influences, it’s hard to believe the album hasn’t been toned down somewhat. The impact that hype can have post-release was seen in the case of Frank Ocean’s, Blonde, possibly the most anticipated album of 2016. How was its reception? Flat as a pancake, particularly with the critics.
In spite of the above, there are some positives that hype brings with it. While Bicep’s album doesn’t break much new ground, the massive response and chart position it gained will likely pique the interest of some who previously had no concern for electronic music. In turn, this can bring attention to smaller artists in the genre who wouldn’t gain mainstream attention otherwise.
It is perhaps important too, to consider that this is Bicep’s first album-length piece of work. Perhaps gaining the favour of a large audience has been the aim of this project. Maybe in the future we shall see the abstract, left-field cuts that would sound infinitely more interesting than some of the tracks on this debut LP.
Returning to the original question of ‘Is respectable good enough here?’ The answer is no, not for me at any rate. When work by any artist is preceded by so much palaver, it needs to be consistently solid. This means any tracks that are considered ‘filler’ or substandard can’t be allowed to make the cut. If you’re unfamiliar with Bicep or electronic music in general, this may be a good place to start. However if you’re already familiar and have been for some time, you will likely find this album a bit wanting.