[13 March 2013]
Biffy Clyro’s ascent from Scottish alternative rockers with a small faithful following to one of the 21st century’s few arena bothering pop-rock bands has been a success story that few could have predicted. It has been a slow but steady rise through years and years of paying dues and touring tirelessly while releasing albums full of anthemic songs that range from emotionally charged (“Just Boy” / “Questions & Answers”) to adrenaline loaded angularity (“Bodies in Flight” / “There Is No Such Thing As a Jaggy Snake”).
The first three studio releases confirmed that the Kilmarnock trio—Simon Neil (vocals/guitars), James Johnston (bass/vocals) and Ben Johnston (drums/vocals)—were bristling with plenty of great ideas, but at times were lacking killer song-writing instinct. Regardless of this need for fine tuning, Biffy connected deeply with those who discovered the band’s twisting riffs and rhythms and the sincerity of Simon Neil’s heavily accented vocals (singing with a regional accent was not in fashion when Biffy arrived on the scene).
Puzzle, released in 2007, shot the band out of the clutches of their dedicated fan base and straight into the mainstream consciousness. It was the record where Biffy got everything right: a superb production courtesy of Garth Richardson; huge hooks (“Saturday Superhouse”); and engaging songwriting (“Living Is A Problem…”) with a high level of poignancy only previously hinted at (“Folding Stars” and “Machines”). Only Revolutions followed in 2009, cementing what Biffy Clyro accomplished with Puzzle; as a result, their fifth full-length proved to be the band’s most commercially successful.
Most of Only Revolutions mainstream appeal came from the fact that the songs removed the sharp edges from the instrumentation that still existed in shards on Puzzle in favor of an accessible sheen; not to mention the talentless dolt from X-Factor who covered “Many of Horror” and pushed Biffy Clyro’s odd name onto primetime TV. The band toured the world and headlined some the biggest shows of their career but the perpetual touring schedule affected Biffy internally to the point of near break-up. After a bit of demon-wrestling and some well needed recuperation, Biffy Clyro have returned to the limelight with their most ambitious endeavor yet—a double album titled Opposites.
Reteaming with Garth Richardson and artist Storm Thorgensen and conceptually basing the record around the duality of life, Biffy Clyro have split Opposites into two parts: The Sand at the Core of Our Bones and The Land at the End of Our Feet. Musically you get exactly what you expect of latter day Biffy Clyro—songs that caress light and shade with vibrant melodies that express the emotional weight of Neil’s lyrics. However, this familiarity has mixed results. There is a constant sense of having heard it all before to a majority of the compositions on this record, to the point where you can predict where the band is going after one listen.
“Different People” starts in a syrupy mire before emerging with typical Biffy bombast, while “Sounds Like Balloons”, “Little Hospitals” and “The Joke’s on Us” hit the mark instrumentally and vocally with an energy that is as infectious as anything heard since Puzzle. However, where the more upbeat songs on The Sand… get some forward momentum going—most noticeably on “A Girl and His Cat”—it is automatically quenched by the slower, less quirky contributions that move from Biffy trying to get their Bon Iver on during “The Fog”, to their abysmal attempt at whipping up some drama with “Biblical”; the trumpets and “woahs” come across as somewhat contrived and the song ultimately fails because of its own self-importance.
It’s this juxtaposition of balladry and high energy that encompasses the entirety of The Sand…, and—because of the constant flipping between moods and the missteps with the sequencing—the record’s pacing suffers significantly. Saying this, the sequencing of The Land… fares much better and this side of the double album contains some of the stronger, more diverse songs. Biffy wield bagpipes tastefully on “Stingin’ Belle”, which matches “Black Chandelier” for a soon-to-be live favorite. “Spanish Radio” splices some subtle Mariachi influence into the mix, with Neil attempting some new ideas vocally and pulling them off. The dynamics of “Victory Over the Sun” and the electronica-splashed “Skylight” work much better than some of the moodier attempts on The Sand…, while “Woo Woo” adds some necessary heft and “Picture a Knife Fight” brings Opposites to a rousing conclusion.
Double albums—in the majority of instances—are a risky affair usually resigned to prog-rock magicians. When bands under the mainstream spotlight attempt such a move, it tends to result in a record full of filler with a spineless producer afraid to deflate a few egos by telling the pretentious musicians to reel it in and release a collection of ten to 12 of the best songs (See: Green Day/The Red Hot Chili Peppers). This is not strictly the case here, as Biffy Clyro have managed to avoid most of the pitfalls of such bloated expanse, even though Opposites‘s running time is quite lengthy. Fans of Biffy Clyro will dive headlong into these 20 new songs and embrace them as feverishly as anything the band have previously released, but that’s not to say that this record isn’t without its flaws.