Bibio has a long mane of hair that reaches below his shoulders, and a beard that splits the difference between scruffy and styled. He sometimes dresses in vaguely hippie-esque apparel, and possesses an intense look in his eyes. He describes his new album, Phantom Brickworks—his ninth overall, and sixth for the Warp label—not as a collection of tracks, but as “a mental portal into places and times.” The artwork on the vinyl version of the record is crafted with a hand-inked letterpress, with the veteran West Midlands artist (real name: Stephen Wilkinson) overseeing the process himself. In short, he seems to teeter perilously close to the nexus of pretension and rustic hipsterism. But once you let Phantom Brickworks’ electronic musings wash over you, any preconceived notions go out the window—its tracks are hugely evocative, full of both grand gestures and intimate explorations. It’s perhaps Wilkinson’s most affecting music yet.
Phantom Brickworks represents a hard turn in Bibio’s ever-evolving sound. His earliest releases, while hardly traditional, generally fit into the time-tested “pastoral songcraft with electronically-processed instrumentation and a touch of field recordings” mold—one of his earliest boosters was Boards of Canada's Marcus Eoin, and it’s easy to hear why. The work, varied in mood but uniformly excellent, was full of subdued emotion, but there was a crackling tension to it, as if Wilkinson couldn’t quite find the way to release those emotions. Later albums saw him leaning towards a poppier style: last year’s A Mineral Love, which saw him opting for a sun-dappled, wiggley R&B sound, was far from his heaviest release, yet it was a reflexively appealing addition to his discography. But Phantom Brickworks is a different album entirely—it’s a serious-minded foray into billowing ambience, drenched in atmosphere and bristling with texture.
Consisting mainly of improvised compositions, the album’s theme is one of lush minimalism. Layers of whispering synths, some in muted orchestral shadings and others humming with electricity, ebb and flow. On opener “9:13” those synths delineate a hushed circular melody; on “Capel Celyn,” they affect a spectral choral chant; “Ivy Charcoal” feels like an aching recollection of a lost love, captured as the memory fades into the either. Many of the songs also incorporate meditative piano work. Sometimes it comes in the form of a skeletal lullaby-esque melody line, as on “Phantom Brickworks II,” or it can be rich and elegant, as on “Branch Line.”
There’s a widescreen vibe to these tracks; with their patient, sometimes nearly imperceptible cycles of accretion and subsidence, they feel as much like landscapes as they do music. But they’re vistas that have been internalized and made personal, and that process—along with the calm majesty of the songs—is the source of Phantom Brickworks emotional sweep. Perhaps Wilkinson’s assessment of the album as “a mental portal into places and times” isn’t so highfalutin after all—it may be the best way to describe this expressive set of tunes.
02 Phantom Brickworks
04 Phantom Brickworks II
05 Capel Celyn
06 Phantom Brickworks III
07 Ivy Charcoal
08 Branch Line
09 Capel Bethania
Phantom Brickworks LP is out now on Warp Records.