The risks as well as rewards of popularity are well known to thoughtful musicians. The White Stripes articulated it succinctly on “Little Room”, from the album that marked their commercial breakthrough, White Blood Cells. “Well, you’re in your little room and you’re working on something good,” the band’s frontman Jack White sings. “But if it’s really good, you’re gonna need a bigger room.” The problem arises when you don’t know what to do in the bigger room. “You might have to think of how you got started,” White concludes: “Sitting in the little room.”
“Big room” has a particular resonance for electronic music duo Bicep. In their world, it refers to the rise in mass-scale events that came with the rapid growth of dance music in the late 2000s. A sub-genre called “big room house music” was coined, a brash form full of massive peaks and thunderous bass drops, like a multiplex-designed, action-film version of club music.
Bicep’s progression from the little rooms of their origins to the big rooms of the international circuit has been plotted with care. The Northern Irish duo of Andrew Ferguson and Matthew McBriar were music bloggers who became DJs and then producers making their own music. Each stage of growth has been undertaken industriously and with imagination. The success of their self-titled debut album, released in 2017, capped their move from fringe to mainstream.
Isles is its follow-up. The bigger space in which Ferguson and McBriar now operate is clear from opening track “Atlas”, with its world-spanning title and vocal sample of the late Israeli singer Ofra Haza. The journeying through other musical cultures continues on “Apricots”, which combines samples of Bulgarian and Malawian singers. It takes place within a sweeping dance music setting. Expansive synthesiser chords stretch like the horizon across a blue sea. It has a Balearic tint, evocative of 1990s chill-out.
This globalised style reflects the fact that dance music is now a global lingua franca. But Bicep avoid the twin traps of appropriation and blandness. The tracks are assembled with precision but also warmth. The album’s dynamics are broader than its predecessor. There are more voices, not just in the form of sampled singing, but also a lead vocal by singer Clara La San on the smoothly powerful anthem “Saku”.
Emotive chord progressions recur throughout the album, a generic big-room tactic for triggering a response. But they unfold within a supple and detailed beat-scape. Repeated reference points of techno, trance and UK garage are drawn from formative memories of clubbing in Belfast and the pair’s first encounters with the musical melting pot of London, where they are now based. The spirit of The White Stripes’ advice is heeded: the little room of original inspiration has not been forgotten.
‘Isles’ is released by Ninja Tune