Discovered in 1929 by German neurologist Hans Berger (inventor of the EEG), “alpha waves” are the slow neural oscillations that become prominent at the back of our brains when we close our eyes but remain awake. This week, scientists at UC Berkeley published a study showing that these waves follow a pattern linked to the generation of creative ideas. No wonder the liquid layers of spiritual vocals and undulating electronic beats on Bicep’s second album, Isles, helped my kids surf the homeschooling with heightened focus this week.
For the uninitiated, Bicep are Belfast-born, London-based DJ duo Andrew Ferguson and Matthew McBriar. They first came to mainstream public attention back in 2008 with a dance music blog called Feel My Bicep, which showcased their dexterous, digital crate-digging. Soon they were touring the world, sending clubber’s hands strobewards with subtly sophisticated mixes of Nineties house, jungle, ambient, garage, disco and hip-hop beats.
In interviews to promote their eponymous 2017 debut album – featuring hits “Aura”, “Opal” and “Glue” – they explained that their freewheeling embrace of such wide-ranging electronic styles was “not about jackhammering genres together for maximum impact”, but “a deconstruction – studying certain sounds down to the elements, and then building something new”.
This second album – a trancey affair they promise to take harder and faster when they’re able to spin it live – finds them digging deeper and reaching wider, spiced by a decade of globetrotting. Hindi ululations, Bulgarian choirs and Turkish pop (overheard in kebab shops) have all left their mark on Isles.
The international influence is signposted by an opening song called “Atlas”: an ecstatic track featuring a scribbly top-line synth that slides bright and frictionless over it like a felt tip on a whiteboard. The yearning, female vocal layered over it sounds like it’s travelled across centuries of sand dunes to reach us.
The spirituality of this sound traverses an album. A soulful, 1958 sample of some Malawian singers is looped into a kind of litany at the heart of “Apricots”. The sombre chanting of monks anchors the daydreamy “Lido”. Elusive, tongue-talking syllables rise like incense over the rattling drums of “Sundial”. Through each track, beats are given space to breathe, twist tempo and evolve into new geometric forms: like thoughts in a meditation.
Coming from Northern Ireland, Bicep are all-too-keenly aware of religion’s potentially divisive power. They have no religious beliefs, but come from different faith backgrounds. And they’ve said that at Shine (the club in which they cut their teeth), “people from both sides of the tracks would be hugging. And the following week, they’d be with their mates rioting. It felt like the safest place but, on paper, it should have been the most dangerous.”
Even when the (few) words on Isles are sung in plain English – as by Clara La San on the lovely “Saku” –they’re open ended and questing. The Sade-influenced Manchester-based artist (best known for her excellent 2017 mixtape Good Mourning) aims for “bedroom intimacy” when she’s not gazing up at the stars through her telescope. Here she sings, sugar sweet and sad: “I need to feel what I felt before/ Can you help me feel what I’m waiting for?”
She speaks, surely, for all the dancers locked down by the pandemic, aching for the clubbers’ communion of mind-morphing, spine-rattling beats. We might be waiting a while for that. But for now, Isles invites you to close your eyes and let your alpha waves throw their own shapes.