Biffy Clyro - Opposites
DISCLAIMER: While this is very much a record review, in which the music of Biffy Clyro is discussed, it is also a love letter. It's a love letter to a girl that left you, a girl that cut her hair short and stopped pretending she read Russian literature. It is written to a girl that doesn't really exist anymore, who stands alone in your memories, buried deep inside the furthest recesses of your brain. These days when you see her you become so blinded by past emotions that you cannot look into her eyes. Staring at your shoes you find yourself so stuck on the very idea of her that you cannot hear the words she is trying to say. Even though you recognise that you yourself have changed since, you've become so convinced of what she was that you cannot accept that maybe she has moved on without you. Not that this level of self awareness helps you with anything, you still dream of the good times regardless, running these thoughts in circles and repeating yourself endlessly to anyone that will listen.
It started when I first heard 'The Go Slow' on one of those cover mounted CDs that were so on trend during the first few years of this century. It's loud/quiet, fast/slow dynamic when combined with the fragility of Simon Neil's vocal delivery had me hooked from the beginning. The next weekend I got the bus into town and bought Blackened Sky. The opening notes of 'Joy.Discovery.Invention' give me goosebumps to this day. I could obviously talk now about the soaring euphoria of '57', the abundance of ideas flowing concurrently that makes the climax of 'Stress on the Sky so gratifying, or how 'Christopher's River' became a real thing for our friendship group. Just been dumped and having a FML moment? "Christopher's River mate" we'd say and smile "It'll be ok in the end."
For me, tied up within all of that, was the depth of empathy that Simon Neil's voice inspired as it cracked with emotion. The band played as many gigs as they could back then, for about two years it felt like Biffy supported every touring band that came through. The songs sank into your psyche through each live performance. Singing along to songs like 'Hero Management' almost became group therapy sessions for the willing participants. The song feels perfectly designed for it. The tender lyrics and plucked melody at the start lead into that glorious crescendo of complex guitars. Before the ultimate scream-along-hands-in-the-air chorus at the end, sweating through your shirt, grabbing whoever is next to you, and singing your heart out as your throw your body into shapes. It's because the songs were sung with so much feeling, by them and by us, that we grew so attached. The experience of seeing them play, singing along with them as one, developed into a sense of ownership that we never truly understood at the time. We just loved those songs.
Vertigo Of Bliss was released the following year with the band still relentlessly playing shows, it reached #48 in the UK charts and led me to tell anyone that would listen that Biffy Clyro were "the best three piece rock band since Nirvana." It was an album almost literally bursting with ideas and great songs. So attuned with their own creative confidence as they were, they rarely dwelled on the peaks within songs, preferring to move onto the next idea and develop a more controlled climax further down the line. They spend, for example, the first four minutes of 'Liberate the Illiterate' building into the perfect chorus only to run through it once and end the song. It was this, combined with the quirkiness of the actual songwriting that sometimes made it feel like an in-joke, like you were smiling with the band rather than them smiling at you. For fans like me it soon swelled from love into obsession, and we weren't alone. MTV2 started playing their videos and you suddenly found yourself in rock clubs singing "You've got all these great answers to all these great questions" at strangers, and they kept dancing, smiling and singing back at you "still I feel them passing me by." Back then, it seemed like everyone that knew of Biffy Clyro, adored Biffy Clyro. There were no half measures with this band and each time they passed through town to play a show it felt like they had a bit more confidence, a bit more momentum, like it was building into something great. Something was definitely happening. We could all feel it and we all happy to be part of it.
On the day Infinity Land was released I got up early, caught the bus into town and returned home like a happy hunter gatherer. By 9:30am I was sat in my living room with a handful of friends, the stereo turned up loud ready for what Biffy would do next. From the opening bars of 'Glitter and Trauma' I was awestruck, somehow they had upped their game, it felt to me like this was what music was all about. Like the first two records, it was produced by Chris Sheldon, but it sounded bigger, crisper, fuller almost. I didn't understand how anyone could make music so completely insane feel so accessible. Listen to a song like 'There is no Such Thing as a Jaggy Snake' and you are taken in so many different directions all at once. They were experimenting with music in ways we could not have imagined when we heard Blackened Sky for the first time. Evolving into something that at once, encapsulated everything they were, and everything they could become. The soft, tender moments were dwelled on, drenched in verstehen. The loud bits were wilder, more unhinged and freer than anything they had done before it. All the while, the song arrangements were so dramatically complex, baffling almost, we were left asking just how they managed to make such a noise seem so effortless. While we sat with our jaws on the floor, the general public didn't make too much of a fuss over Infinity Land. It entered the charts at #47 and sold enough copies to make it clear that whilst they were quietly cultivating a diehard fanbase who would buy their records they weren't really expanding into the mainstream, as songs like 'Questions and Answers' from Vertigo had previously promised.
The band left their home at Beggers Banquet records following the release of Infinity Land and signed with 14th Floor, an imprint of the Warner Music Group. Taking advantage of the increased budget of a major label the band took off for Vancouver to record their next record. Puzzle arrived in 2007 and was the first Biffy record not to have Chris Sheldon on production duties, instead Garth Richardson took to the helm, having worked on several seminal records (including Rage Against The Machine's self titled debut) it seemed like a safe bet. Whilst retaining some of the quirkiness that led to our adoration 'Puzzle' was a clear grab for mainstream success. Over 300,000 copies later, and we thought that the objective was complete, but the band were really only just getting started.
This record marked a changing point for the band and its fanbase. Playing largely to a new audience and sharing stages with the likes of Linkin Park, QOTSA and Bon Jovi amongst others. Many of the longstanding fans began to feel disillusioned, as if their hard working little band from Scotland was no longer theirs. The sense of ownership that had developed over the previous three records, in the non sequiters that made up their songs and the primal release of their live shows, was beginning to wane. When Puzzle proudly stepped out of that shadow to be enjoyed on a scale previously unheard of, the perceived loss of control from their fanbase was evident. Not that commercial success was the problem, more disappointment that the band felt they had to step away from the things that made them so different to achieve it.
That girl you loved, that girl you grew up with and adored, that girl chose the boring guy from high school, the middle management type who really cares for his car and his golf clubs. You don't feel any real resentment towards her for making that decision. You just feel sorrow that your adoration is not enough. It almost becomes more about what her attitude and decisions say about you, than whatever it could possibly say about her.
While this shift was happening the band toured hard, as they always had, only on a bigger stage to a bigger audience. All six singles from Puzzle made the daytime playlist at Radio 1 and all of a sudden, the transition of Biffy Clyro into a massive band was complete. Years of hard graft had finally amalgamated itself into universal mainstream praise. They released 'Mountains' as a single and it planted itself firmly in the top ten in the UK charts. They flew on this high over to Hollywood and set about recording a new album, which they called Only Revolutions.
By this stage, the band had been written off as 'pop' by a once diehard crowd that had become too bitter to listen properly to what was going on. The 'pop' was really just the quiet intimate moments that were evident from the start. The huge choruses were there too. The major difference was the density of ideas. Where previously Biffy would throw away a killer hook for an intricate time signature, never pausing to breathe before moving on to the next thing. Now we found that each idea seemed to pan out an entire song. To the people that loved them from the start, it felt like Biffy were watering themselves down for the mass market, while the mass market was just enjoying their great songs for what they were. Over 400,000 copies of Only Revolutions were sold in the UK alone and the record was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. It cemented their status as one of the biggest rock bands in the UK and to celebrate, the band played an arena tour, releasing a DVD of their sold out Wembley Stadium show in the middle of 2011.
All of which leads us roughly to now. Although it's been nearly four years since the last record, the singles, the live DVD and the near constant radio play have made it seem like they never really went away. In 2012 the band announced that they were recording a double album to be titled Opposites. The first disc would be called 'The Sand at the Core of Our Bones', and the second, 'The Land at the End of Our Toes' with these two sides supposedly being polar opposites of each other, both in musical arrangement and lyrical theme. As an idea, the pair stand as the bands most coherent attempt to unify a concept over the course of a record thus far, which is an interesting development in itself.
The first disc discusses the trials and tribulations of their success, of dealing with the increased pressure of being a bona fide arena rock band. Of working so hard towards a future that you don't realise until it is too late where you've got to in the present. The problems that developed within the band are well publicised now and a reflective mood lingers throughout its ten songs. "There's no such thing as home" Neil croons on opening track 'Different people'. A song which starts as if it's the perfect wedding song for accountants everywhere until the tempo changes and the guitars kick in. It is a gentle progression from the previous two 14th Floor records but ultimately this disc is more of the same. There are a few noticeable differences, the guitars feel more compressed, the vocals are slightly more obviously autotuned. The gloss paints over the cracks. The cracks that once defined their character. If you were a fan of the last two records, you'll probably like this, if you weren't then you won't. That is not to say that you shouldn't try.
Songs like 'The Jokes On Us' have intricate little guitar lines that to some degree hark back to the old days, but when they are used alongside lyrics like "What's that sound? it's the sound of the truth in us, reaching highs that we won't in the future" it eludes to a level of self awareness that will probably go unnoticed by the majority of fans. This awareness is prominent throughout the record. It is the first record they have made that is obviously about Biffy Clyro. Or at least one that shows clear glimpses of the experience of being Biffy Clyro. So when in the same song they sing "Lets move to California and find ourselves a whole new world" you have to consider yourselves warned of their intentions.
Where the first disc stands charged with purging the band of all of the pressure and anxiety that they were carrying around. The second disc 'The Land at the End of Our Toes' deals less with where the band have found themselves, and more with where they are heading to. Having talked out all of the grievances, they are stronger and more positive about their future together. It's the double album equivalent of marriage counseling, and as a concept it is essentially a success.
There are two songs that are really key to understanding the heart of this record. Each one sits towards the beginning of its respective disc and encapsulates what you feel Simon Neil is trying to say with this album. The first, 'Sounds like Balloons' describes the past legacy of the band as Ancient Rome, saying they built it stone by stone. "Our fingers bled, our feet were worn, but we stood strong and carried on." Acknowledging the hard work it took to get to this level of popularity and becoming comfortable with their transition into superstardom they sing "this is not for your entertainment" before launching into the huge gang vocal of "The land at the end of our toes goes on and on," almost certainly unrepentant that they now have the world at their feet and the possibilities from here are endless. It's a song that feels aimed at fans like me, the ones that watched them build stone by stone in the first place, the entire record feels somewhat cathartic on that level. As if it's something that had to be said for them to move forward with a clear conscience. "Our past never really dies" they sing, "the sand at the core of our bones continues on."
In 'Modern Magic Formula' they take this idea one step further and add vitriol. Its opening line "Hey little man, let me sing my song" sets the tone. Later in the song it becomes "hey heavens whore" addressing the constant sniping of what is now a relatively small section of their massive fanbase. Musically it's the most aggressive song on the album, which is fitting, as they look to purge any sense of responsibility for the ill will towards them. "So you wanted to change the world but I didn't believe you, that's why we'll say goodbye to the good old days son." Years of working too hard led to this point, where they had to take stock and either call it a day or come to terms with what they have become. This record not only comes to terms with it, it actively seeks to heal any wounds and move forward as a stronger unit. That sense of no going back, of no surrender, is summed up perfectly in the line "I'm trying the best I can but there is a white flag burning in the middle of my hand." It's with this song that they are signing off from our shared past. "What we need is a magic formula, a whole new backbone." You can begrudge the essence of the band shifting towards the middle all you like, but with this level of self awareness, this clear statement of intent, it is hard to muster anything more than a wry smile.
From this point on, the record has a marked change in feel, songs like 'Pocket' happen. Songs that are almost unrecognisable from the Biffy we once loved. It is a clear play for the global market, songs that will fit perfectly onto American radio stations and seep into the psyche of people around the globe. It's clear from the lyrical content of this record that the band know exactly what they are doing and I for one wish them well, but these are the last words I will ever write about Biffy Clyro...
The girl is looking you in the eye, you are weeping and she is asking you to stop. She says it's over, she says "please don't make me say it again," she says "we can still be friends." You feel the air leave your lungs, staring out of the window at the people walking by, you compose yourself for a moment. "Of course we can" you say.
(At the time of publishing, Biffy Clyro's Opposites is sitting at number one in the UK album charts. The band have also just confirmed that they will be headlining the Reading and Leeds festivals, fulfilling their childhood dreams)
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