Music

Irish duo Bicep transform ’90s underground dance music into a boldly original form that transcends and honours the rave era. By Chris Johnston.

Bicep

Bicep’s Andy Ferguson and Matt McBriar.
Credit: Dan Medhurst

Bicep – two young men from London via Belfast – make electronic music that is unfettered rave nostalgia. They take us back 30 years while remaining – to their credit – firmly in the present.

New album Isles, which entered the British charts at No. 2, is in spirit, the underground sound of 1992. It is full of nostalgia for the lasers in grids overhead, the bobbing heads at dawn at the docks, the basement clubs, the warehouses and the hangars that were rave venues. Bicep is chromatic breakbeats and lush, mournful breakdowns. There’s a purity here, an intent to not only preserve the sound and feeling of the rave era, but also to honour it.

It’s curious to hear such knowing throwback nostalgia from producers who were only just born when this music was happening. It’s a paean for something they’ve never known. But somehow Isles is so on point that it moves beyond tribute or facsimile into bold originality, rich in memory, rhythm, ritual and, yes, mysticism.

The pair – Andy Ferguson and Matt McBriar – has been making dance music since 2009, but it has taken almost all that time to reach this intriguing juncture. They did 30 or so EPs and singles on vinyl 12" and digital download and then signed to rave-era beats label Ninja Tune. Two albums followed – 2017’s acclaimed Bicep, the beginnings of this forward journey into the possibilities of history, and now Isles.

They also – importantly – curate a music blog called Feel My Bicep, which became a go-to spot for dance music nerds to hear lost treasures: Italian disco, funky rock, Chicago acid house and ’80s Balearic tunes from Ibiza. In other words, the source material – all the stuff that came before rave. It seems clear that Ferguson and McBriar are scholars of dance music’s rich history, going right back to the ’70s and the deep roots, but what they have chosen to focus on in quite a microscopic way is the early ’90s. It’s not a mistake or a coincidence; their potential palette is wide. They want to revisit it because – without ever being there – they know that it meant something.

In 1995, at the height of Britpop – in many ways a traditional rock response to the mysteries of electronic dance – the British group Pulp did a song called Sorted for E’s and Whizz, E’s being ecstasy and whizz being speed, or rave fuel. The song softly mocks the raving experience, a common slight from the rock’n’roll side of the ledger that back then didn’t cope well with the idea of DJs playing other people’s music with not a guitar in sight.

The Pulp song was released as rave culture was moving headlong into the mainstream, becoming corporatised and sanitised. Frontman Jarvis Cocker is louche and sarcastic but an erudite observer of those he feels unconnected to, and he sings in Sorted of a guy at a rave who loses his friends and can’t get a lift home, even from the strangers who so enthusiastically communed with him earlier. “Is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel?” he asks. “Or just 20,000 people standing in a field? I don’t quite understand just what this feeling is…”

It’s now normalised. Key items of rave – DJs and DJ equipment, producers, strange new drugs for dancing, day parties, warehouse parties, festival parties – are standard for millennials and Gen Z. But the nostalgia for that sense of the underground – of knowing about something that was not yet widely known, of taking part in something that felt like a kind of overthrow of the status quo – remains strong. Isles taps right into that.

This record is more for younger generations than old-timers, I think. Seasoned ravers will love it, but younger people may find within it a possibility of wonder. Isles seems to me to be a vanishing point where the memories of past generations collide with the desires and impulses of new tribes. Between the notes, Bicep re-creates emotions that were ephemeral – lost in the moment, lost in music – lest they be forgotten.

Maybe rave and the early ’90s is due for a revival, or at least a good dose of nostalgic reinvention. It was 30 years ago after all, and culture moves in cycles. There are other striking recent examples – in Britain in 2019 the Saatchi Gallery in London held a rave archive exhibition titled Sweet Harmony; at the same time the BBC was showing several similar documentaries. A sequel is scheduled to cult rave film Human Traffic – “reach for the lasers, safe as fuck”. Andrew O’Hagan’s wonderful new novel Mayflies is set in and around youth culture in Scotland and Manchester in the ’90s. There’s something in the air.

Bicep themselves, on a clip for 2017’s Glue, intercut scenes of urban and pastoral Britain with text quotes from YouTube comments on rave nostalgia channels, populated entirely by former ravers: “I’m 48, married with kids, half my brain is still working” and “I’m 48, was away with the fairies from 88-93, best days of my life.”

The Bicep sound of breakbeats and breakdowns means it’s not a 4/4 house or techno beat. It does not “doof”. It comes across as unsteady, a little giddy, employing the breakbeats – old drumbeats, chopped up and time-shifted – used solidly by rave, jungle and drum and bass producers back in the day. But it’s not a drum and bass album either, in the same way that great contemporary producers such as Jon Hopkins, Koze, Burial, Fourtet, Jamie xx, Floorplan and, previously, Leftfield and Underworld, are able to make dance records that are not one sound or micro-genre but transcend them all.

The breakdowns are important too. I guess these are the electronic equivalent of a middle eight – atmospheric ghosts of sound before the beats drop again. They are a huge trope in dance music, expressing its ventures in the rave era towards mysticism and even spiritualism. A time of enchantment, if you like, amid the turmoil.

To this end, Bicep sample voices – as texture rather than discernible words – that were present in rave-era tracks. They include the late Ofra Haza of Israel and 83-year-old Asha Bhosle, an Indian playback singer. They also use snippets of a Bulgarian choir and Malawian singers from southern Africa as well as collaborations with British soul singer Clara La San (“X”, “Saku”) and Canadian cellist Julia Kent (“Rever”).

Some Isles tracks (“Cazenove”, “Apricots” and “Lido”) are way more breakdown than breakbeat: opener “Atlas” is a homage to the blueprint for this entire canon, “Papua New Guinea” by Future Sound of London, a staple of 1992’s dance floors and an all-time rave classic. That great and fondly remembered track sampled Australian singer Lisa Gerrard from Dead Can Dance to give it mysticism and yearning; a longing, a sadness even, in a place where no one is meant to be sad.

Bicep understand these 30-year-old tensions so well – ecstasy and yearning, and the emotional weight of being alive. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 13, 2021 as "Raving nostalgia".

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Chris Johnston is a Melbourne writer.