The Scots rockers go large with a double album featuring bagpipes, a mariachi band and gigantic festival singalongs
Over the course of their fourth and fifth albums (2007’s ‘Puzzle’ and 2009’s ‘Only Revolutions’) Ayrshire’s Biffy Clyro took on the task of transforming themselves from a trio of leftfield weirdies to masters of melodic mega-rock. The next phase: consolidate their position and show they’re capable of Foo Fighters levels of global fame. So they went to Santa Monica, California and got deeply into medical-grade marijuana, and things got heavy. Then in January 2012 came the big announcement: Simon Neil and brothers James and Ben Johnston were working on a full-scale double album. It would either be the pinnacle of their Rock Gods dream, or a long, drawn-out bullet to the temple. It was to be an audacious record with a loose concept: one half documenting the falling apart of relationships; the other, the picking up of pieces. Those parts would be called ‘The Sand At The Core Of Our Bones’ and ‘The Land At The End Of Our Toes’. The resulting album clocks in at 78 minutes. To prepare to listen to it is to prepare to climb up Mount Biffymanjaro.
The adventure starts smoothly enough. But when spiky guitars meet harp strums on third track ‘Sounds Like Balloons’, things get scary. The lyrics reference the titles of both discs, refer to its painstaking, year-long production and proffer a warning to those voyaging inside this XXL-sized album: “Ancient Rome, they built that fucker stone by stone/ This is not for your entertainment”, it barks. But its bark is worse than its bite. The song ‘Opposites’ follows, and it takes us into soft-rock territory, recalling – gulp – Scots rockers Del Amitri. But the genius of Biffy Clyro has always been to straddle the line between experimental and anthemic. It’s a knack that saw their 2010 single ‘Many Of Horror’ creep its way to Number One in the Trojan Horse-like disguise of X Factor winner Matt Cardle’s debut single ‘When We Collide’. It’s a knack displayed again two tracks later on ‘Biblical’, a song with a chorus so massive it already sounds like 80,000 Reading festivalgoers are singing along. That’s how the first disc continues, flipping between edgy and anthemic – Biffy’s best modes. Sometimes it happens on the same track: ‘Little Hospitals’ pits a juggernaut chorus against a guitar solo that sounds like Brian May playing oompah style. A pained atmosphere hangs over CD1 , broken only by the bit in ‘The Joke’s On Us’ when “our souls” sounds like “arseholes”.
By the time you reach the halfway point and prepare for CD2, you realise ‘Opposites’ is not, as feared, an unedited expanse of rock-band mind splurge, but two albums’ worth of well-constructed songs. In the build-up to the record’s release, details dripped through about the band’s mindset during its construction. Drummer Ben Johnston was drinking, relationships in the band were faltering. But ‘The Land At The End Of Our Toes’ takes us into more life-affirming territory. Just like any good double album (hello, ‘The White Album’), the second disc houses the album’s strangest songs. Opener ‘Stingin’ Belle’ has a bagpiper doing his tuneful squeaky dog-toy thing, ‘Spanish Radio’ has a Mexican mariachi band, and ‘Skylight’ features electronics that sound like the theme from The Neverending Story.
The album closes on an optimistic note, with Neil intoning “I will love you till the end of time” on ‘Woo Woo’ and issuing sweet nothings on ‘Picture A Knife Fight’. And then it’s over, you’re exhausted, and the question is: have Biffy committed career suicide? Hell no. They’ve released a chunk of bombast that goes far beyond the recommended daily allowance. But for the sheer audacity of it all – and for mostly pulling it off – they need saluting.