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Biffy Clyro ‘Ellipsis’ – Review

20 Jul

Biffy Clyro are a heroic rock band; they dream big but retain an unguarded intimacy that few small bands possess. It’s rare to find a band who sell out arenas with such a big, beating heart and so many ideas. ‘Ellipsis’ is their seventh album, and they consider it to be their best to date. It’s the follow up to 2013’s ‘Opposites’, a grand double album that documented the breakdown, and reparation, of lead singer Simon Neil’s marriage. Under the guidance of Garth Richardson, that record was meticulously produced and epic in scope and ambition. Knowing it would be impossible to venture any further in that particular direction, ‘Ellipsis’ finds them pulling the table cloth from under that precisely laid out table set up.

At least, that’s the narrative the band have given us. It may well have been the intention and the impetus but that isn’t what I hear when listening to ‘Ellipsis.’ If anything this sounds more eclectic and more ambitious than ‘Opposites’ and If it doesn’t quite scale the dizzy heights of that record then it isn’t for want of trying. Sonically, it’s a bracing album. The guitars are scuzzy, the vocals are rough but drums have been processed, bass lines have been distorted and the synths are used to create atmosphere. The band are toying with different genres and pulling techniques from different stylistic traditions. We get pitch distorted vocals, trap beats, grungy feedback, country rock arrangements and some of their popiest melodies yet.

As on ‘Opposites’, Biffy are genuinely daring here. They write abut personal crisis in a brutally honest and direct way. There isn’t a unifying theme as there was on that album but Simon consistently sounds as naked and exposed as he appears on the album’s cover. On the delicate standout ‘Rearrange’ he sings in the bare falsetto of a man who has ‘God Only Knows’ tattooed on to his chest. Ive always admired the way in which he creates a veil with abstract metaphors before pulling the veil down with a blunt turn of phrase. Here it’s ‘I’m broken and I need your help’, and ‘I’ve got a lot of rage and I’m struggling with ways to control it’. These are beautiful, stripped down moments of honest vulnerability that pepper between the heavier songs.

The album is a sleight eleven songs long and there’s a pleasing lack of filler. It starts strongly with odd lead single ‘Wolves of Winter’ and only gets better as it marches on. They missed a trick not releasing ‘Friends and Enemies’ as the lead single. With its big room drums, choir and Bastile baiting melody, it has crossover hit written all over it. It’s unlike anything In the Biffy canon. ‘Medicine’ and ‘Howl’ are more traditional “Mon the Bif” anthems (in fact ‘Medicine’ probably skirts a little too closely to 2009’s ‘God and Satan’) and somewhat make a mockery of the band’s initial claim that ‘Elipsis’ would be a return to their raw, unfiltered hard rock roots. Actually, the album sounds clean and modern, with a commercial mix that perhaps plays it a little safe. For all their pre-album mutterings, this is without a doubt Biffy Clyro’s stab at a polished studio album.

There are still the usual Biffy trademarks, they’re just occasionally diluted. We still get some unexpected time signatures, layered backing vocals and unusual imagery however the band seem more interested in trying new ideas than in using tried and tested measures. But by now Biffy have teased out almost all the possibilities of their impressive, but limited nonetheless, range. Even the wilder songs on this album (the borderline humorous country-rock ‘Small Wishes’ and the everything but the kitchen sink maximalism of ‘Wolves of Winter’) feel quite familiar, as if they’re variations on songs we’ve heard before. Biffy are, inescapably, a band who have been making music together for nearly two decades. This is, unavoidably, their seventh album. Their past is a shadow they can’t outrun, however much they may want to – as such ‘Ellipsis’ is not the tearaway album the band would like it to be. But as a point of comparison, last year Muse released their seventh album, the tired, deflated and repetitive ‘Drones’. That dull dead end is a fate Biffy Clyro have done well to avoid. ‘Ellipsis’ is a more daring, more revealing and more enjoyable record than the seventh album by a massive arena rock band has any right to be. Mon the Bif.

7.5/10

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Biffy Clyro ‘Opposites’ – Review

14 Feb

Biffy Clyro are great with big ideas – big ideas to fill stadiums with. Their best album to date, 2007’s ‘Puzzle’, explored death at some length, and ironically it was the album that propelled them into a majestic reign of rock. They make BIG music as well; skyscraper riffs, stacked up harmonies, choirs, bagpipes and orchestras are all sparingly used to bolster their sound. Music made like this is usually awful – even the masters of the genre Muse have become unstuck recently –  but Biffy Clyro keep getting better and better.

A lot of stadium bands design music to fill stadiums but you never get the impression that Biffy go about it in this way. Rather, it feels like these songs were crafted in the garage and ‘epic’ is just the way they came out. Biffy don’t fall into the sinking sand most tedious ‘rock’ groups do either – their solos are never to showy, their songs are never too long and their rhythms are never predictable. Biffy have an edge and a personality that other groups must surely be envious of. In their early ‘indie’ days, Biffy flickered between Math-Rock, Pop-Punk and Screamo, and these elements combined to make them a unique proposition. You can still here the influence of these genres in their sound, along with a big dose of Power-pop. It’s an intoxicating mix.

‘opposites’ is band’s grandest statement to date, and their most refined. Most double albums are bloated but ‘Opposites’ isn’t; two discs feels necessary rather than excessive, there is no obvious filler and there are no radical departures. Rather Biffy Clyro acknowledge what they’ve done well in the past and better it. The Storm Thorgerson designed cover (not one of his best) shows a tree being battered by the wind. It’s leaning towards the ground but because of its strong roots it is still standing. This is a metaphor for the group, who have experienced their fair share of problems since the release of ‘Only Revolutions’ in 2009.

The title track is a poignant ode to a couple who are drifting apart: ‘you are in love with a shadow / who won’t come back’ Simon croaks sadley in the second verse. It could be a reference to the child his wife miscarried during the making of this record, just one of the many ghosts that haunt these fractured songs. Elsewhere he screams ‘I’m in love with somebody else’ over and over again like a battle-cry, while on ‘Modern Magic Formula’ he bleats ‘I’m tired of being exposed/ and I don’t know how much more of this I can stand.’ You believe him. The whole record feels extraordinarily real and fraught.

Simon’s lyrics have never shied away from difficult subjects, but here everything feels zoomed in, brought to focus in a very knowing way. He sings about distance between lovers and friends and he writes tellingly about misleading appearances (‘everybody cares, but nobody knows’). The music matches the emotion ounce for ounce. ‘Biblical’ is a belter of epic proportions; a song with three choruses that fight to outdo each other. At the end it breaks down to just a voice and guitar as he asks ‘baby if you could would you go back to the start / make any fresh steps or watch it all fall apart, again.’

The two halves of the record follow a loose narrative. The songs on the first disc are more melancholy, pessimistic and reflective as Simon gravitates to the past. The second disc sets its sights on the future with a more positive and inspired outlook. There are moments of light relief (‘Pocket’ is an old fan favourite, finally getting an official release – it’s very Blink 182) but the mood is pretty sobre throughout. Which isn’t to say the music is anything less than engaging, enjoyable and utterly exciting. They may be on a downer lyricaly but the tunes have edge and passion which makes this an ultimatley uplifting, almost spiritual record. It ends with the mantra ‘we’ve got to stick together, we’ve got to stick together’, sung in unison by all three members of the group. As a chant it out-does the various ‘I just can’t take it anymore’s that pop up in various contexts over the course of the album. ‘Opposites’ ends with hope for the future. That said, Biffy will surely struggle to top this. It’s their defining moment so far, and all things considered ‘Oppossites’ is the best stadium rock record since ‘Black Holes and Revolutions’. Mon the Biff.

9/10

Biffy Clyro ‘Only Revolutions’ – Review

5 Nov

Many a band have shed their quirky and edgy skin to appeal to as large an audience as possible, it started with U2 and the trend continues well into the 21st century. The competition between bands to become the next Muse (even though they are still at a creative peak) has resulted in many groups from various more interesting sub genres of rock heading down a road which they hope will lead to Wembley way. For my money the two bands who in recent years have gone ‘big’ and remained as creatively succesful as before have been Fightstar and Biffy Clyro. Biffy’s 2007 album ‘Puzzle’ was one of the best pure rock albums of recent times, it trod a fine line between pop anthems, acoustic sentimentality and their post hardcore root. That album dealt with moving on after a loved ones death, and as such it seemed to mark the end of one stage of Biffy’s career and the start of a new, bigger chapter.

Our first hint of things to come came last summer with the outstanding ‘Mountains’ – a song that perfectly bridges the gap between ‘Puzzle’ and ‘Only Revolutions’. If everything was as good as ‘Mountains’ then this would not only be Biffy’s best album yet but also the album of the year. Obviously everything isn’t as good as this though…

Early single ‘That Golden Rule’ is surprisingly the album’s most intense song, but fans hoping this would be representative of the album will be massively disappointed; There is nothing that even comes close in terms of excitement or energy. ‘The Captain’ is the album’s opening track and also the one with the best sing along moment, although ‘Bubbles’ has a really good go at it despite being a bit bland. ‘God and Satan’ is a lot better, recalling the more emotional moments of ‘Puzzle’ whilst being a lot more vague. In fact this is one problem I have with the album; with ‘Puzzle’ the band dealt with concrete images of death, life, despair and love – on ‘Only Revolutions’ it’s hard to decipher what exactly the songs are about due to the many mixed metaphors and bizarre imagery.

The second major problem with the album is that it tries to hard. The slow songs, even the ones that start well, usually build to a lighters aloft choirs and strings climax. The beauty of ‘Machines’ and ‘Folding stars’ was the restraint and simplicity. Likewise when the bands rock out, they go ALL out (as on ‘The Captain’) and you wonder if they’ve forgotten what made their previous albums so magical. ‘Cloud of Stink’ and ‘Boom Blast and Ruin’ are amongst the albums more edgy moments, but compare them to anything of their first few records (or even ‘Puzzle’) and these songs sound absolutely tame and uninteresting. It’s not even as if they are good songs, they are completely forgettable, which can be said of too many of the album’s tracks. ‘Many of Horrors’ and ‘ ‘Whorses’ are a lot more interesting and even sound like classic Biffy; It’s moments like this that make this album a worthy listen.

There is no doubt that ‘Mountains’ apart this album fails to produce the big moments it so desperately searches for. They’ve added horns, strings, choirs and sing along chorus’s but without the lyrical wit, melodic warmth and quirky time signatures of yore those elements are redundant. Although ‘Only Revolutions’ is not the complete consolidation of success I was hoping for (nor is it the return to basics many older fans were wanting) it is by no means a bad album, just a disappointing one (by their standards). ‘Mountains’ and ‘The Golden Rule’ are as good as anything Biffy have ever done and there are plenty more songs to interest Biffy fans and newcomers alike. I suspect how much you like this will depend how much you have looked forward to it.

7/10