Sunday, 10 February 2013

Biffy Clyro - Opposites (Album Review 2013)

It comes a time in the evolution of every band when, not satisfied with taking their art to the next level, they take it a level further. Biffy Clyro - still a formidable trio of Simon Neil and twin brothers James and Ben Johnston - have continued to beguile and intrigue, since the 2007 landmark album Puzzle, with their unique blend of guitar-fuelled, often progressive, hard-edged emotional music. Two years on, the band released the brilliant, Mercury Prize nominated, Only Revolutions; an instant critical success positioning Biffy Clyro as a more acceptable alternative to the pomp and extravagance of Muse and the emotive wide-eyed visions of Coldplay. And like their contemporaries, they are now filling stadia, headlining festivals and firmly in the mainstream - so what better way to acknowledge this presence than to make two albums in one, one celebrating the past and the other bringing in the future. Opposites is a huge double-album, bloated with ambitions and startling arrangements, packed with Neil's double-edged lyrics and vocal arrangements, and seemingly limitless in its scope and depth.

The two sides of Opposites are not as musically opposed as they first seem. Part one (named unofficially as 'The Sand at the Core of Our Bones') is not packed with all the big songs, leaving part two ('The Land at the End of Our Toes') as a weaker bag of experimentation and wilder moments. Far from it. The entire album is expansive and coherent, and the songs flow with consistency. From the opening Different People, a delicate cinematic ballad transforming into frantic guitars and drums, to the stirring emotional pop of recent single Black Chandelier, it is clear that this ambitious project is still wrapped up the familiar Biffy Clyro approach. In the latter, Neil throws us 'When it's just the two of us... and a cute little cup of cyanide' and the band deliver a heavy, muddy guitar break - not your typical love song. Opposite, with echoes of Idlewild at their brilliant best, is more controlled, heartbreaking and emotional, soaring with 'Baby, I'm leaving need to be with somebody else', while Biblical is near-perfect pop, a simple trick wonderfully executed, brimming with obvious rhymes within a superb vocal structure. The second half of 'The Sand...' is something of a mixed bag. The Fog stands out as obscure and magical with playful and mysterious guitar-work making way for a heavier, menacing, Mogwai-esque finish, while Little Hospitals is more of an 'emo' montage of other ideas pieced together, like something from Green Day's American Idiot. But it is The Thaw, another love song with a big open-hearted chorus, closing part one in style. 'Forgive me if my mouth is dry, I'll blame it on my battle cry' sings Neil, as the delicate guitars wash through the song. This builds to a rousing chorus and predictably, a big finish.

'The Land...' opens with the big, bold arrangement of Stingin' Belle, complete with bagpipes to compliment the driving drums and guitars. Ben Johnston excels in the second half as a huge instrumental closes the song. Modern Magic Formula has all the feel of an anti-fame protest song, delivered through punk-pop guitars and pounding drums - Neil sings 'So you wanted to change the world? But I didn't believe you...' before the emotional: 'I'm trying the best I can but there's a white flag burning in the middle of my hand'. This is more loose and liberated than anything before - slightly out of control and manic. Victory Over The Sun is similarly vitriolic - the juxtaposition of sharp verses and a gliding chorus with big strings to finish. This leads to the best of part two, Pocket, another great pop song, bringing in piano and a sublime guitar arrangement. Skylight is another example of Biffy Clyro taking on the likes of Coldplay and winning the battle of the emotional heartstrings. 'We are users...but at least we use each other, friend...' is another brilliant line from Neil. The song quickly dives into a massive cinematic instrumental adding another dimension. In the final trilogy, Accident Without Emergency is another highlight while closer Picture A Knife Fight brings together obscure references and an upbeat chorus into a spirited finale. 'We've got to stick together' becomes the last refrain.

The risk with Opposites is always that quantity would make way for quality but this is never the case. The band sound magnificent and Simon Neil's writing is as compelling and as sharp as always. The album never seems bloated and over-thought - granted there are a few weak moments - The Joke's On Us is instantly forgettable, Sounds Like Balloons and Spanish Radio are trademark (spiky and anthemic) but nothing new, and Trumpet or Tap is an odd attempt at something different with an overblown ending; yet the ebbs and flows help create the overall structure and charm. The 'single edition' of the album is baffling idea - an attempt to merge 'The Sand...' and 'The Land...' together while omitting stand-out songs like The Fog, Pocket and Accident Without Emergency. But overall, Opposites is the sound of an band reaching their true potential and a brilliant attempt at staking claim to a poorly-guarded kingdom, left vacant by bands who can no longer defend it.

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