Biffy Clyro – ‘Balance, Not Symmetry’ review

On the soundtrack for a film of the same name, the Scottish arena rock titans find themselves reinvigorated and exploring thrilling new territory

Twelve-years-on from breakthrough fourth album ‘Puzzle’, Biffy Clyro’s accession from beloved art-rock almost-rans to beloved arena rock titans remains the feel-good story of mid-noughties music. Rarely has hard work paid off so effectively. Never have good people been rewarded with such riches. It’s a story so unlikely and so heart-warming, it wouldn’t be the greatest of surprises to hear that Zac Efron is currently biroing obtuse scribbles all over his body and practicing his Scottish accent, ready to take the band’s story to the big screen.

And yet trading the backroom of The Barfly for the Radio One A-List did come at a cost. Accusations of compromise don’t sit well when levied at a band who, at the height of their newfound fame, decided to release a double album (2013’s ‘Opposites’) or write a hit single whereupon bagpipes were the principal instrument (‘Stingin’ Belle’). A penny for the thoughts of the band’s A&R man when those ideas were brought forth. But at the same time – and it’s a criticism that applies also to Foo Fighters, Muse and a handful other bands within said stratosphere at various occasions – there has been a template for the band’s biggest songs. Skyscraper chorus, searching verses, a bit in the middle that Match Of The Day might use as a vaguely emotive bed for Goal Of The Month.

It would be reductionist at this point to hope for a new Biffy Clyro album consisting of several reworkings of 2004’s ‘There’s No Such Thing As A Jaggy Snake’ (still the band’s most thrillingly obtuse moment), and yet ‘Balance, Not Symmetry’, a collection of songs that will serve to soundtrack a new, forthcoming, as-yet-unseen movie of the same name, may well be the album that shakes the band out of their AOR funk. It’s easily the most innovative collection of songs the Scottish band have delivered in a good half decade – at times feeling more like a sketchbook than a fully fleshed out studio album, full of “what if we try this” experiments, and sounding all the more thrilling for it. The movie, written by director Jamie Adams and singer Simon Neil himself, reportedly deals with the concept of grief, an emotion Neil has channelled before on some of the band’s benchmark moments. It’s somewhat strange, then, that the accompanying album sounds so full of life.

There’s a song sequenced at the middle of the record – at seventeen songs and one hour and five minutes, this is an album that requires significant investment – entitled ‘Tunnels And Trees’. You might be aware of the infinite monkey theorem, whereupon the theory is posed that a chimpanzee hitting key at random on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time will type any given text, like the complete works of William Shakespeare. This is a song that sounds a little bit like three chimpanzees have been given guitar, bass, and drums and told to write a Biffy Clyro song. It’s so strange, so playful, so innocent and wild-eyed, that it’s hard to imagine that Biffy Clyro – a band who know pain and know struggle – didn’t fall on the floor in hysterics upon concluding its composition. It sounds like a band rediscovering their love of songwriting.

The record takes the band in some fascinating, previously unexplored directions. The song ‘Plead’ is essentially Biffy Clyro trying to write a Chris Isaak song. ‘Fever Gaze’ harnesses the sort of dream pop you’d more commonly associate with a band like Beach House than Biffy Clyro. There are instrumentals here, like the songs ‘Pink’, ‘Navy Blue’ and ‘Yellow’. And there is a song called ‘Touch’ that sounds a little bit what it might be like if Keith Emerson guested with the band. Not everything here will be of interest to every Biffy Clyro fan. A lot of it might jar with casual fans who continue to call the band Billy Clyro. But there is magic here, unquestionable magic. And yet best of all; ‘Balance, Not Symmetry’’s legacy might be that it ultimately reinvigorates one of Britain’s most special of bands.

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