Underacheiving Scots answer their critics with widescreen fourth album
Anyone who’s loved Biffy Clyro over the last few years will be no stranger to heartbreak. We valiantly cheered them on as they released album after album to the growing adulation of their small army of militant fans, but, unfortunately, the indifference of the wider public. They had great songs, sure, but true greatness always escaped their grasp. However, four albums into their career as rock’s best-kept secret, and it looks as if the underdogs have cracked it.
The foundations have been there all along: they did ‘emo’ – at least, its modern interpretation – before anybody else did, and before the word itself became loaded with images of crying boys, songs about cancer, and Pete Wentz’s penis. Were it not for Simon Neil’s slight Scottish lilt, any layman unfamiliar with Biffy’s lunatic Nirvana-meets-Weezer-meets-QOTSA melange would wrongly assume they made their home in America. Were that the case, ‘Puzzle’ would make a lot more sense – so different is it from any other British-born rock record of the past five years, owing more to the windswept limbo of the Big Country than any provincial town centre. Biffy’s world is a strange one, where tales of jaggy snakes and old men selling bones on the street are the norm, where choruses are monumental and song structures devious.
The long road Biffy have taken to get to the point of the world-exploding album they’ve always threatened to make is littered with the tombstones of early-noughties Britrawk bands that didn’t make it: Hell Is for Heroes, Hundred Reasons, Jetplane Landing. But Biffy have survived, long smouldering in the background, building up a steady cult of devotees that would happily travel for hours to watch Simon Neil and the Johnston brothers play a single song.
So what’s changed now? There’s no shame in it – for Biffy to achieve their full potential, they needed to think outside the rock box and take the plunge into instrumental diversity. If ever there was a band crying out for label cash to splash out on fancy, rented musicians, it was Biffy Clyro. The Ayrshire trio may have always pumped out a decibel count that belied their number, but they have also always sounded like three scraggy dudes. However, care of some major-label recording lucre, they’ve developed, and, as if by magic, suddenly find themselves serious contenders for the title of Greatest Band In Britain.
The difference is immediately apparent on opener ‘Living Is A Problem Because Everything Dies’. You may have heard the radio version, but you’ve certainly not heard the cataclysmic firebomb of guitar and violin gut-punches that precedes it on the album version. It’s something that doesn’t so much introduce the listener to the giddying new direction Biffy have taken, as it does repeatedly clout them over the head with ‘Puzzle’’s sheer promise.
And before you’ve even had time to recover, it’s straight into ‘Saturday Superhouse’ and the Biffy-go-pop of ‘Who’s Got A Match’. Suddenly, ‘Puzzle’ starts to unravel itself – with the money in place, the band have found their breathing space, and the result is pure melody. The songs now feel worked-through as opposed to worked-over – a criticism readily applied to some of the more obtuse filler found on previous albums.
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So, while second effort ‘The Vertigo Of Bliss’, was recorded in one sweaty day, and sounded like it – the product of that fatal mistake when bands consciously attempt to commit their live sound to record – and last record ‘Infinity Land’ showcased just how mad Biffy could sound when they put their minds to it, resulting in an exclusive record that pandered to the diehards, the band have learnt their lesson here. The result: Puzzle’ is strewn with thrilling musical asides that cannot be fully or faithfully reproduced live, and that don’t close the door on any potential new recruits to the Biffy cause.
And this is no crime. From ‘Now I’m Everyone’’s saxophone parps to the wounded splendour of ‘Love Has A Diameter’ to the gritty pop-punk of ‘A Whole Child Ago’, ‘Puzzle’ is as breathtaking and hook-driven a record as you’re likely to hear this year. Then there’s the intensely unnerving ‘9/15ths’ – eluded to in earlier interludes – which begins with Simon Neil warning “We’re on a hell-slide/Help us/Help us”, before he’s joined by a choir of mourning mezzo-sopranos and doleful baritones, and a string section that stabs its icy fingers into your heart. As beautiful as it is harrowing, it’s the key to unlocking ‘Puzzle’; a song wholly unlike what has come before, yet still determinably Biffy. It’s not fashionable, it doesn’t have a haircut, it doesn’t strut about all cocksure in fancy matching military wear. No, ‘Puzzle’ is substance over style, as vivid and otherworldly as the Storm Thorgerson artwork that adorns the cover. Essential.