Prolific, acclaimed and consistent; Stephen Wilkinson’s Bibio project has garnered somewhat of a cult following over the years and has become a sort of quiet royalty alongside the likes of Aphex Twin, Mount Kimbie and Four Tet in the electronica and ‘IDM’ scene. The whole intelligent dance music idea may be more than a little facile, but it’s difficult to avoid such designations when it comes to Bibio.
His control over atmosphere and ambient layering beneath the subtle beats and samples that have characterized his albums to date provided depth and nuance that set his music apart from many of the genre’s residents. With Phantom Brickworks, that mastery over atmosphere goes from being the wind to being the sail as Bibio drifts toward a more ambient and minimal sound; and it’s probably his best decision in a long time.
‘Drifts’ is the appropriate word as well. Sustaining the vague sense of structure its title alludes to, Phantom Brickworks moves along at a glacial pace, invoking the likes of Eno and Stars of the Lid far more than the aforementioned artists he has brushed shoulders with over the years. Full of gradually unfolding movements of exquisite fragility, shimmering interludes, long stretches of virtual silence and not a whisper of a beat anywhere, at 75 minutes this is by far Bibio’s longest record to date and in a very deliberate way.
It feels designed to become lost in, every layer slowly uncovered and explored in a way that would not be given justice were it any shorter or snappier. Rather than functioning as mere background music, though it absolutely works in that capacity, the atmospherics, precisely blurred layers and ever-so-subtle dynamic shifts Bibio generates make this music that fills the spaces between everything and carries you there with it; in the way all great ambient music should.
Take the title tracks, ‘Phantom Brickworks’ in three movements spread throughout the album that takes the lion’s share of its minutes and provides the closest thing that could be called an anchor or theme. Distant pianos – sometimes steadfast and stoic as they chime and echo on, others fluttering and pirouetting between each other – provide gentle sketch-work that is slowly and softly colored in with hazy drones, static feedback and ghostly choral samples. The haunting decay of the drones on ’09:13′ and ‘Pantglas’ provides a tender transition as do the detached organs of ‘Capel Celyn’.
Accomplished and meticulous, it is clear that Wilkinson has poured himself into this music and is offering you to do the same. Among a modern musical framework that relies on immediacy, gratification and stealing minutes on streaming services, it’s a joy to be consumed by something like Phantom Brickworks that challenges you to be still and have the patience to wholly absorb what is being offered. The result is a truly rewarding experience; both introspective and otherworldly, deeply haunting yet full of solace; and above all completely and utterly beautiful.