The Ayrshire trio raise their game again with an audacious double album. They don’t quite pull it off, but it’s fun (with the occasional wallow) watching them try.
Biffy Clyro - Opposites
14th Floor, £12.99
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It has been a pleasure to witness the steady, single-minded rise of Biffy Clyro over the past 15 years, from spiky teenage misfits speaking to other spiky teenage misfits to anthemic alternative rockers reaping considerable crossover success, sealed by that bizarre interlude when their mighty Many Of Horror was chosen as an X Factor winner’s single – and retitled as the less oblique When We Collide.
Being men of integrity, the Ayrshire trio are not content to coast now that the royalties are flowing and the arena tour is booked. Like their peers Muse, Biffy are looking to push things forward. Their two major label albums to date, Puzzle and Only Revolutions, have confirmed that they are comfortable working with a wide canvas. Opposites goes larger again.
There are plenty of artists who are happy to release 78 minutes of music in one go – the justification being why not fill that CD to capacity? – yet they would baulk at calling their sprawling creation a double album. Well, Biffy have bigger balls than that. They are proud to call Opposites a double, even naming the two halves The Sand At The Core Of Our Bones and The Land At The End Of Our Toes, and according them contrasting themes and moods.
The first half is more introverted lyrically, having been written against a turbulent background of fracturing relationships and personal difficulties – relentless touring was driving a wedge through the band’s friendship, which was only exacerbated by drummer Ben Johnston’s drinking, while frontman Simon Neil’s wife suffered a series of miscarriages. Neil is no stranger to a musical chest-beating but the second half of the album casts life in a more hopeful light as Neil dusts himself down and ends the journey on a more positive note.
Musically, this meeting of opposites is less of a dichotomy and more of a mixed bag, oscillating as before between Biffy’s love of the leftfield and their talent for tunes. Neil has said “we wanted to make the first double album that you could enjoyably listen to from start to finish”. Opposites is indeed an enjoyable listen, which is neither weighed down by nor quite matches up to the bold statement one makes in producing a double album.
Doing the double gives a band room to play. Biffy have taken this on board with the bagpipe flourishes of Stingin’ Belle and the mariachi touches on Spanish Radio. They have written a song called Sounds Like Balloons. What do balloons sound like, you may wonder? Like jagged guitar arpeggios intercut with light brushes of piano and a behemoth of a chorus, silly. But mostly what they offer is familiar Biffy fare, and lots of it, executed to a pretty high standard.
Opposites offers plenty of what you might call the commercial alternative. Different People could be a Snow Patrol dirge, until it achieves lift-off on the chorus, powered along by helter skelter drum patterns. Make no mistake, the newly sober Ben Johnston is all over this stuff.
Want to wallow? Black Chandelier is a paean to pain with possibly the most emo lyric ever in “dressing our wounds with industrial gloves made of wire”. Self-flagellating ballad Opposites is the anti-Many Of Horror, awash with hand-wringing references to bleeding wounds. As advertised, Neil sounds marginally more hopeful by the time he gets to The Thaw.
The rent-an-anthem Biblical goes over old territory – not an issue in itself but this doing-what-they-do-best sounds more invigorating when it involves the clipped, urgent riffola of early Biffy as referenced on A Girl And His Cat.
Then about halfway through The Land… they suddenly remember that this double album thing is theirs for the shaping and hit a fertile streak which breaks new ground for the band, starting with Pocket, a refreshing New Wavey power pop number with an insistent piano refrain and a joyous guitar solo. The prog pop of Trumpet Or Tap features a great rugged vocal from Neil and a spiralling orchestral finish (arrangement courtesy of David Campbell aka Beck’s dad). Skylight is a quietly powerful rock ballad garnished with shimmering synths, while Accident Without Emergency is a big, bold, air-punching commercial rock song without the bombast. To celebrate this run of fine writing, they blast through Woo Woo for adrenalised kicks. The album draws to a close minutes later with little slack to clear up.
But could Opposites have been improved if they had pruned their song selection and just released a resounding single album instead? In respect of quality control, it’s a fair point. But doing so would have robbed the album of its audacious intent. Because, like many an ambitious musical gesture, Opposites turns out to be more than the sum of its parts.