Since 2005, Stephen Wilkinson has been releasing music on both Mush Records and Warp Records as Bibio. The name, stemming from a small fishing fly his father would use during his childhood, is a representation of the warm sense of home and foundation his music exudes. Many of his releases are full of folk-oriented music that grounds the listener in tradition, but the English artist and musician is not one to remain stationary. With each of his 10 full-length releases, the folk traditions migrate through a dizzying maze of electronica and experimentation. There feels to be a desire to reorient one’s self in order to gain new perspective on what appears familiar. There are moments of beauty, awkwardness, grit, sadness, and everything in between throughout his catalog. There are no safety nets used for Bibio–whatever story is meant to be told and needs to be told will always be displayed in an unmistakably organic manner.
Bibio’s latest release from April of 2019 is a pleasant return to the sound that put this purveyor of folk and easy-listening hip-hop on many people’s radars. The foundation of the album is the acoustic exploration of influences from the 1960s and 1970s. Ranging from soul to ambient influences, Bibio takes folk styles from the British islands and the United States and colors them with mandolins, fiddles, guitars, and a fair number of field recordings to create an unbelievably warm sonic world.
Opening with “Beret Girl,” a beautifully stripped down melody played on guitar hovers above the warmth of a tape hiss and the occasional chipping of a bird before slowly fading to nothing. It is a subtle announcement leading the listener out of Wilkinson's previous ambient project, Phantom Brickworks, into an equally complex texture, but melody driven story. “The Art of Living” continues the warm pastoral scene complete with samples of a cow.
We then land on “Before.” Laid back with a gravely twang throughout all layers, the focus seems to narrow during this third track. We’ve left the reverb-soaked vastness of nature and settled into a 1970s soul-funk groove.
The lead single from the album, “Curls,” returns to nature with the sounds of birds add and brightness to the the folk melodies coming from banjo, fiddle, and vocals painting a blue picture of a relationship reaching a breaking point.
Ribbions travels through a simultaneously joyful and haunting landscape. “Erdaydidder-Erdiddar” pulses with the ominous sound of footsteps marching forward before a sudden shift in color leaves the listener wondering the true origin of this seemingly endless stream of footsteps. Are these from a military-like march or do they come from the gleeful steps of dance to these folk melodies? It is a hazy meaning that matches the foggy lo-fi sound of the track and album as a whole.
A return to upbeat jazz-fusion is found in “Old Graffiti.” It is a final breath of vivacious life before the end of the album and plays like a vibrant jam session. From this point on, Bibio slowly lets us down with down tempo and guitar-based tunes in “Patchouli May,” “Valley Wolf,” and “Quarters.”
As a closing number, “Under a Lone Ash” leaves a stamp of optimism on the audience. A familiar feeling melody is played but on a bright guitar sound that has found a chance to peek out of blanket of lo-fi before it is too late. Bibio finds a way still to push forward even within the context of his most nostalgic and folk-based works to date.
Bibio’s ninth studio release from 2017 is perhaps the furthest he has departed from the nostalgic soul and folk electronica that his audience has grown to love. His long term listeners have also come to embrace Wilkinson’s relentless effort to explore musical styles. With Phantom Brickworks, Wilkinson immerses himself into ambient music creating a well rounded album that plays as a welcome and refreshing escape from his fingerpicking and indie pop foundation.
The concept for the album, as described by Wilkinson, is based on the idea that “places can be haunted by meaning…human beings are highly sensitive to the atmospheres of places, which can be enhanced or dramatically altered when you learn about the context of their history.” The long sustaining composition style leads the ear to hear the album as an atmosphere/location as much as it hears is as much music.
“9:13” opens the album with a dampened melody that fades in slowly and floats effortlessly through then duration of the track. “Phantom Brickworks” introduces the piano as a main character. Delayed attacks give the hint of a waltz a few minutes into the title track of the album. With metallic timbres accompanying the piano, a darker mud fills in the lower frequencies as the meter pulses unravels. A haze then moves into view along with tape hiss and the distant sound of voices. The feeling of phantom souls is hard to escape as the track fades ever so slowly.
“Pantglas” is a shift towards a more demonic and distorted lens. Such as is heard in many tracks, there is an ambiguity with the timbres present. The listener can only really grapple with issues pitch and volume as the source of each noise is filtered and altered to an unrecognizable level. The hum that ensues is chilling.
It is the shortest number on an album where slow and deliberate technique is highlighted, but “Ivy Charcoal” stands out as my favorite track of this project. The choral-like organ that gradually builds in its number of voices is accompanied by a field recording that is brilliantly processed once again to a point of ambiguity. At times sounding like water, wind, or even crackling flames, the repetition of harmonies becomes a background to the mysterious symphony of nature that fully consumes the track come its conclusion.
Ambient music always brings with it a certain meditative quality–it is slow music that music be approached with a similar pace in order to be fully appreciated. In an interview with Clash, Wilkinson comments, “I listen to it myself – usually at night, when everything has quietened down I like to put my headphones on and listen to it. That’s important to me, to put my headphones on and listen to it for a long time.” There is a process and ritual to listening that mirrors the deliberate processes taken to create the music. Phantom Brickworks stands apart from his other releases not for its exploration of ambient music and departure from the artist’s familiar voice, but for its mastery of technique and ability to evoke powerful imagery and sense of calm.
To this day, Ambivalence Avenue remains Wilkinson’s most critically acclaimed release and is perhaps the Rosetta Stone of the “Bibio Sound.” At the time of this 2009 release, people began to wonder if Bibio was, as Pitchfork put it, “a pleasant one-trick pony.” Ambivalence Avenue is Bibio’s debut on Warp Records and an announcement to the world of the talent Wilkinson has in producing, singing, songwriting, and arranging. The wide range of influences present are all masterfully pumped through warm tape effects and mixed to enhance the complex textures of this album.
The use of effects blurs lines throughout the album. It is diverse in style, but effects take away from any immediate indication of the pop, rock, folk, and hip-hop inspirations existing in the sound. “Ambivalence Avenue” is joyfully played with the folky melody in three, but compressed and side-chained through a gritty lo-fi filter.
“Fire Ant” pays respects to one of Wilkinson’s biggest self-proclaimed influences, J Dilla. The chopped vocals over a drunkenly swung drum pattern is a stark contrast from much of the rest of the album, but is a window into Bibio as a music fan and appreciator.
“Sugarette” is a continuation of the hip-hop influence and a flex of Wilkinson’s production chops. A flurry of processed vocals and wet synth arps and stabs creates a dizzying soundscape.
“Lovers’ Cravings” is perhaps one of Bibio’s most recognizable hits. It plays out in two distinct chapters the first being a pleasant display of guitar fingerpicking. Multiple layers of bright guitar lines meander to a satisfying conclusion leading into an upbeat and danceable second chapter. In front of a soft cowbell a syncopated line is looped on guitar gradually adding layers including vocals lines that speak of memory and gleam an equal brightness to the instrumental accompaniment.
Many of the songs have an interesting format of trailing off into a more ambient closing passage, almost as if the thought was never completed. “S’Vive” follows this pattern after track full of distorted back and processed vocals. It feels like a strategy to slow down these driving electronic track in an effort to continue the seamless exploration of influences throughout the album. The next song, “The Palm of Your Wave,” is a chilling folk song. To hard cut immediately into this song would be shocking. These ambient interludes mend the gaps between styles throughout the project.
This fourth studio release is a brave and ambitious experiment. Without the correct track order and pacing, the number of styles and genres that are touched throughout the album could easily become disorienting and unconvincing. We hear Bibio venture outside of the personality of his first three studio albums while remaining true to his fascination in nature and the art of recording.