Nothing about Biffy Clyro would suggest they’re one of the biggest alt-rock bands in the UK today. There’s the awkward-sounding name for starters, which means… what? The band have never said, other than to confound theories. There’s the discordant riffs and jarring time signatures that seem at odds with their soaring melodies, yet Biffy somehow mould them into perfect bedfellows. They’ve amassed a huge fanbase in the two decades since the release of their debut album, Blackened Sky, without ever having pandered to mainstream conventions. While being widely loved by rock crowds, they’ve never felt an inclination to fit in. Biffy Clyro have simply played by their own rules and won the hearts of fans, industry and media in the process. Their non-touring lifestyles, too, seem completely at odds with their widespread popularity. But when it came to record their sixth album, Opposites, another dichotomy arose that almost ended the band.
The backstory: Either the drinking stopped, or the band did
As Biffy Clyro decamped to Los Angeles for the Opposites recording sessions, cracks started to appear. Biffy Clyro are a band who have always prided themselves on evading rock’n’roll clichés; they are three normal men, who live normal lives with normal wives and girlfriends in the very normal Ayrshire, in Scotland. A popular band, then, who completely reject the typical band clichés. Except when it came to drummer Ben Johnston’s drinking.
“Drinking too much…” frontman Simon Neil told The Guardian. “It’s a funny thing for a Scotsman to worry about.” But Johnston’s alcohol consumption had gone too far. It all came to a head the night before the group entered the studio to record what, at the time, they described as “the most important record of our lives”. What started as a quiet drink and pizza with one of the band’s crew ended up, for Johnston, blackout drunk and covered in blood, with no idea what happened. Neil and Johnston’s twin brother, bassist James, staged an intervention. Either the drinking stopped, or the band did.
“There was no shouting match,” Johnston recalled. “I didn’t try and pretend I had the situation under control. But for the first time, the extent to which my behaviour was affecting everyone – and the future of everything – sank in.” In the cold light of sobriety, for the drummer it was a no-brainer. Biffy Clyro had simply become too important to give up on. “If we’d made a record in that situation we would have been acting,” Neil admitted. “And that’s not what being in a band is – and it’s not what being friends is. It so happened that the timing of it was so, so bad… but it turned out to be the best thing that’s ever happened to us.”
That thing was another musical anomaly that, in the hands of the Scottish trio, just worked: the gruelling double album. A double concept album, no less.
The album: Hard times and despair, and a renewed sense of hope
What came out of Biffy Clyro’s cliff-edge ultimatum to their drummer, was a creative burst that spawned 40 songs – which they eventually whittled down to 20 – that fell into two distinct categories. There were the hard times of their struggles as a band in dealing with Johnston’s alcoholism and the despair of Neil’s personal life when his wife suffered a series of miscarriages. Those tracks would form the Opposites album’s The Sand At The Core Of Our Bones disc. But then there was the light at the end of the tunnel: the renewed sense of hope and turning things around, the songs about which formed The Land At The End Of Our Toes’ half the opus. It looks self-indulgent written down. Yet with Biffy Clyro’s unassuming touch it’s a joy to listen to.
On Opposites the contradictions continue. There are few bands who do what Biffy Clyro do without the resulting noise sounding like an unmitigated dirge. The Scots somehow manage to blend the discordant post-hardcore and jazzy time signatures of their formative years with gargantuan, arena-filling choruses (Sounds Like Balloons) and make them sound like they were made for each other. There’s the tender Opposite and, later on, The Thaw, which both tug at the heartstrings without ever sounding sickly and saccharine. Biblical manages to be both soaring in its reach and intimate in its feeling. The swirling and synthy The Fog sounds so personal that listening to it feels intrusive, but it reaches a climax that takes the listener to the furthest corners of outer space. There’s the straight-up rock of Little Hospitals that morphs into a quirky prog-rock bridge and back again.
Rather than being a contrast to the first half, Disc Two sounds more like the flip side of the same coin. Modern Magic Formula is a racket of massive riffs, but it’s underpinned by the thoughtful introspection of Neil’s lyrics. Pocket ventures into Tom Petty territory, while Trumpet Or Tap embraces swing and blues, and yet neither ever strays too far away from Biffy Clyro’s own distinctive domain, thick Scottish-accented vocals included. Skylight would be a pure pop ballad (another X Factor winner’s single, perhaps?) if it wasn’t for the anomalous synth arrangements. Accident Without Emergency builds on a marching beat, ready to explode at any moment, while remaining tethered to an orderly restraint. The words “I will love you for the rest of my life” would typically belong to a cheesy ballad, but from Biffy Clyro’s pen are instead married to the caustic, two-minute burst of Woo Woo.
The results: Destined for greatness while still playing by their own rules
With the confidence of five albums under their collective belts, on Opposites Biffy pushed their creativity to the limit – mariachi on Spanish Radio, anyone? – but never does it feel like they’re being self-indulgent. The result is a collection of some of the best Biffy Clyro songs, an album that throws everything and the kitchen sink into the mix, and yet still sounds measured and thoughtful in its outcome.
Released on 28 January 2013, Opposites’ two discs cover opposing emotions – despair and hope – yet they exist seamlessly next to each other. And, clocking in at just 78 minutes – short for a double album – Opposites never feels like it’s outstayed its welcome. And – the most important disjunction of all – Biffy Clyro demonstrate the self-assuredness of a band who know they’re destined for Foo Fighters-levels of global reverence while still playing by their own rules.
Find out where Biffy Clyro rank among our best 2000s musicians.
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