The good ship Biffy Clyro is setting sail once more, and how. After the bagpiped-up teaser track ‘Stingin’ Belle’, we’ve had the reveal of the artwork for their forthcoming double album ‘Opposites’. This week, the announcement of a bloody arena tour and the debut of another new track ‘Sounds Like Balloons’ confirm that this will not just be the first big release of 2013, but likely one of the biggest full stop. Those in the know have always suspected this moment would come for the boys from the Biff - they were beloved of the underground since 2012. But the way they’ve twisted the mainstream to their own surrealist shape, and Simon Neil has emerged as one of the UK’s most emotive songwriters has still been breathtaking to watch. It’s a long way from their scrappy beginnings, but if all goes to plan, ‘Opposites’ should be the record that sends them the way of Muse. So as we begin that countdown properly, we take a look back over the struggle so far.
The major label debut, commercial breakthrough and the start of phase two is by no means any slouch. The songs are all there, crisp and compulsive and ready to go (‘Who’s Got A Match?’! ‘The Conversation Is...’!). But ‘Puzzle’ comes in bottom for lacking something of grace and exquisite touch of everything. It’s the only album where the withering Foo Fighters comparison actually holds any water, and the result comes off just a little self-conscious.
It’s also unrelentingly grim; Simon talks about his meltdown following his mother’s death with directness that’s poetic but actually feels uncomfortable to listen to. The result is a cathartic record that needed to be made, but emerges in hindsight as the hardest to love.
Biffy weren’t, in the days their debut, especially all that good at their instruments. But the awkward magic that made this band unique was already in place. Plenty of their trademark tics and twists were developed on ‘Blackened Sky’, as was Simon Neil’s prodigious knack at putting together a tune. In the slowburning yeaning of ‘27’, the stupidly anthemic ‘Justboy’ and the acrobatic melody that animated ‘57’ were early indicators of what he was capable of. They wouldn’t fully utilise that skill again for years after, having admitted since that they thought just using one idea when they could use three at once was just a bit... embarrassing. That can be stoners for you.
By their second record, Biffy were already heroes of the underground, beloved of most other bands on the toilet circuit as both the friendliest and the hardest working. And though recorded in little more than a week, ‘The Vertigo Of Bliss’ is where they sharpened their focus and found their true identity.. ‘Questions And Answers’ a gleeful love letter to the college rock of the 90s gave signposts of where things might head, but it’s at its best when revelling in its own marvellous complexity, jamming song sections on top of each other, indulging in extended screaming segments and demented switches in time signature. It’s disrespect for ‘songy songs’ make it best listened to all-the-way-through.
The pop masterpiece, ‘Only Revolutions’ cemented Biffy’s position as one of leaders of all British rock. But more than just dusting off the big hooks, their fifth album revelled in a level of ostentatious fun that they’d never quite indulged so much. ‘The Captain’s demented sea-shanty said it all, that here was a band now completely at ease with their status as big-guns and with the confidence to let it all hang out. ‘Bubbles’ gave them their biggest ever pop moment, while the likes of ‘Born On A Horse’ kept up their surrealist bent while cheekily flirting with disco.
Although they kept themselves at a safe distance, nobody found it more hilarious than the band when X Factor bosses chose ‘Many Of Horror’, a song about spousal abuse, for Matt Cardle’s winner’s single, which took it to the Christmas number one. True, some of the old blow-hards rejected their embrace of pop, but far more new fans were recruited than deserted. ‘Only Revolutions’ was in every sense a victory and a vindication.
The band have often talked about doing things in trilogies. So if ‘Opposites’ is going to the pinnacle of their gigantic rock’n’pop phase, their third record was the logical conclusion of their first cycle as screaming, angular weirdos. And while what’s come since isn’t exactly normal, ‘Infinity Land’ renders best what made them so beloved among fanboys. It’s strange, complicated, and in lots of ways terrifying - but also the point at which they hoisted up their game, strapped on some pistons and became a great band rather than a really good one. The Infinity Land of the title is the setting for a twisted alt.rock fairytale, inhabited by a band refusing to be fenced in. It’s a world that envelopes you completely, and never have a group on the verge of big things sounded so isolated. Every act brings a visceral thrill, be it in the grunge-disco scattergun ‘Glitter And Trauma’, within the smouldering climes ‘Got Wrong’ or on the stoppy-starty tour de force ‘There’s No Such Thing As A Jaggy Snake’. To this day it still stands out as their masterpiece.