Throughout Bibio’s back catalogue there have been hints that a fully fledged ambient album may one day come to fruition. ‘Phantom Brickworks’ is just that. The album sees Stephen Wilkinson leave the folk guitar and vocals aside; instead combining field recordings, looped piano melodies and atmospheric swells to create an album that is more experimental and more ambitious than any of its predecessors. Although the album requires patience and an open-mind, it takes Bibio’s work to a new level, showcasing not only clear artistic vision but masterful composition and production.
Unlike so many of his modern counterparts, Wilkinson thankfully refrains from adding percussion to these swirling, atmospheric arrangements. Instead, he allows looped piano and panning drones to provide the album’s pulse—subtly fading and reappearing. Although at over 70 minutes one might expect the album to lose direction (as well as the listener’s attention), the resurfacing of certain melodies across different tracks provides a backbone to the drifting compositions.
Speaking before the album’s release, Wilkinson described the work as:
“a collection of mostly improvised musical pieces, that for some years now, have provided me with a mental portal into places and times — some real, some imaginary, some a combination of both.”
It is this link between the real and imaginary that makes ‘Phantom Brickworks’ so captivating. The video for a shortened edit of the nine-minute track ‘Phantom Brickworks III’, directed and shot by the artist, is a perfect representation of the atmosphere he creates. The seemingly mystical, the sun drenched canopy of an empty forest, is contrasted with the man-made, the graffiti stained walls of a concrete bridge. It is this contrast that works so well sonically; atmospheric drones and swells are mirrored by stuttering piano melodies or looped recordings of laughter and children playing which occasionally emerge through the album’s heavy layers. This is undoubtedly a haunting world, but it is not uninhabited. For the listener, this creates an atmosphere which, whilst being ethereal, remains accessible.
This link to the real world is further reinforced as a number of track titles correspond to places around the UK. One of which is ‘Capel Celyn’, named after a chapel at the centre of a community in Wales which now lies underwater after the village’s population was evicted and the valley in which they lived flooded. Bibio tells the story through a synth melody which slowly builds and crescendos before fading, leaving only the sound of church bells, which themselves then fade to silence. The use of these field recordings throughout the album does not seem self-indulgent, as is so often the case, rather, they act as an accompanying orchestra—able to accentuate or drown out the instrumentation. The track ‘Ivy Charcoal’, for example, features a relatively simple synth melody that is given extra-weight and emotion by being layered over the sound of a tide rising and falling. Although many of the ideas for this album stemmed from improvisation, it seems that every moment has been meticulously planned and almost perfectly executed.
‘Phantom Brickworks’ isn’t immediately impactful nor will it gain a great deal of radio air-time, yet it may be Bibio’s most coherent, creative and accomplished album to date.
‘Phantom Brickworks’ is out now via Warp Records. The track-listing for the album is as follows…
02. Phantom Brickworks
04. Phantom Brickworks II
05. Capel Celyn
06. Phantom Brickworks III
07. Ivy Charcoal
08. Branch Line
09. Capel Bethania