The laptop screen pulsates with images of hands in lurid colours that distort and repeat ad infinitum. The retro neon graphics of Bicipite’s live stream announcement gradually give way to elegant organic visuals; these in turn form stark, generative abstracts. Il Bicep logo – think Manx flag – appears inside a rolling circle within another rolling circle, like a psychedelic geometry assignment whose equation is just out of reach.
From time to time these retina-searing visuals ebb away, leaving behind reality: two black-clad men facing each other in an empty white room. Gear is laid out before them symmetrically. We are in London’s Saatchi Gallery, but the walls are bare. Bicep are supplying all the art: a luminous, 21st-century spin on 90s rave music, given go-faster stripes by their long-time graphics team Black Box Echo. (“Gallery temporarily closed”, reads a sign under spooky flickering lights.)
On one side is Bicep’s Andy Ferguson: bearded, wearing headphones. Matt McBriar is opposite him, his ears open to the sound coming out of the monitors placed at the pair’s feet, giving some assurance that tunes are actually being played. The two London-based, Northern Irish-born producers first met at rugby practice aged eight. Before they were a band, they were DJs; before they were DJs, these two dance music heads ran a blog about old dance records called Feel My Bicep. Forget any idea of actual muscle – Ferguson and McBriar, now in their early 30s, do not deal in lairy, testosterone-fuelled “bro-step”, but wistful, laser-guided nostalgia, rooted in techno but also alert to syncopation. Two of tonight’s older tracks, Opal and You, nod to two-step as well as house music.
As far as the cameras let us see, the pair seem to work in isolation; their eyes meet only once, when Ferguson briefly looks over at McBriar when one of their most banging recent tunes, Atlas, begins to gather escape velocity. An occasional overhead camera shot lays bare Bicep’s working practices, impossible to see under normal circumstances. Any fellow producers watching must be pleased.
Since time immemorial, electronic music gigs have been pilloried for their lack of showmanship. All too often, the cliche goes, it’s just people hunched over laptops, heads bobbing, while the lights do the charismatic heavy lifting. We’ve long since moved past that. But if Covid has thrown up new challenges for artists seeking to connect with their audiences, it has also supplied fresh opportunities to bring raving to the housebound in unprecedented ways.
Tonight, in their second live stream of the plague year, Bicep have not just made the best of these unprecedented times, they have comprehensively nailed a new hybrid form. Despite the lack of volume and other people, their live stream – which marks the release of their rapturously received second album, Isles – supplies epiphany after epiphany. It’s one-and-a-half hours of fluid dynamics in which those at the upper end of the age range might feel like they’re being pelted with madeleines.
Ever since their sound began to coalesce a number of years ago – a self-titled debut album finally came out in 2017 – Bicep haven’t exactly spurned their retro tag. The video for one of their most-loved tunes to date – Glue – features teary-eyed quotes from old ravers. Tutto Bicep’s YouTube output has similar content in the comments – so much so that it is regularly mocked. Bittersweet longing figures as the predominant emotion throughout many of their tracks – for long-ago summers of love, mostly, but you can also locate a kind of homesickness, what you might clumsily call a kind of Northern Irish saudade, after the deep-seated Portuguese nostalgia pre-eminent in fado.
Bicep might not be wearing lights on their heads as Orbital once did, but the London duo come up often as an obvious precursor. The pair have clearly mined from sources as far apart as Future Sound of London and Boards of Canada; a mishmash of ancient as well as modern that adds up to a kind of originality. Bicep’s blithe melodic through-lines hark all the way back to Kraftwerk. Su Sundial, which comes with lurid, tropical-coloured visuals, the effects-laden, sour vocal recalls Visions-era Grimes (it’s actually Asha Bhosle). Where they choose to use a female vocalist – Clara La San appears often on the new album – it’s with the flavour of a sample.
Where Bicep are bang up to date is in this more ethical attitude to source materials. The long history of sampling has often masked a cavalier attitude to acknowledging – and paying for – others’ work, hiding behind a freewheeling love for old records. Bicep attribute – dedicating a page of their website to footnoting the trackson Isles. The mighty Apricots – tonight’s peaking, penultimate track – lifts from the well-worn world music classic Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares and its vocal from a Malawian compilation. After paying rights holders, Bicipite donated to a Malawian orphanage pure, given the slim likelihood of the money reaching the original performers themselves. Similarly, a year ago Bicep cancelled their biggest gigs to date before the UK government officially locked down, missing out on an insurance payout, because it was the right thing to do.
In interviews, Bicipite have noted how the songs on Isles were tweaked with a view to home. Tonight’s live versions have been comprehensively remixed once again from the original album tracks. This show gives the sofa no quarter; it would have been magnificent live, pure.