- Original publication date: 12 August 2013
Three Scottish rockers, balancing mainstream success with personal struggles such as depression, alcoholism and miscarriages, decide to make a double album. The scales tip, the opposing forces weigh out, and the catharsis is palpable.
It’s a heart-warming tale for the left-field lunatics of alternative rock, whose propulsion into international recognition that started with 2007’s gritty-yet-accessible Puzzle, followed by 2009’s anthemic smash-hit Only Revolutions, signaled a proverbial crossroads in the band’s 15 year creative history.
Fans of their earlier work demanded a return to the quirky, dissonant, grungy riff-fests of The Vertigo of Bliss and Infinity Land, whilst legions of new devotees adored the apparent radio-friendliness of hit singles ‘Mountains’ and ‘Many of Horror’. The latter, a gorgeous power ballad, also netted a Christmas Number One single for the winner of the 2010 X Factor Show, Matt Cardle (retitled to a less-macabre ‘When We Collide’). With that sort of publicity, the path to prosperity is a swift and wide one, as headlining tours become a reality, and popularity allows for a succession of increasingly polished, plainer products to be fed to eager music consumers.
I Don't Know Where We're Going From Here
One way of releasing a large amount of musical product to the masses is the double album, and in choosing to make one, Biffy Clyro needed to know that it is a divisive and potentially dangerous form of record.
Many suffer from pitfalls such as poorly-executed concepts or inevitable filler material, whilst with some projects, artists produce their best work on the format, innovating and experimenting with the increased length available to them. Without a clear artistic vision or worthy material to sustain it, the double album is a risky gamble – critical success, or ego-trip mess?
Take Care Of The Ones That You Love
Amidst their stratospheric rise to fame, there were internal sufferings for the trio, enough so that the future of the band was on tenterhooks.
Drummer Ben Johnston’s alcoholism had descended to grievous levels, resulting in frequent blackouts, missed rehearsals, and on one occasion, an accident where he cut his ear. Twin brother James (bass) felt most affected by his brother’s actions, sinking into deep depression and guilt for about two years, weighed down by a kinship responsibility.
In addition to these pressures, lead singer and guitarist Simon Neil’s wife suffered a succession of miscarriages, and the accompanying grief. Although these tragedies could’ve derailed their dreams, instead they provided song writing inspiration for Neil, helping him navigate the seas of despair towards a brighter place; a journey full of ideas and concepts.
Let's Make Immeasurable Moves To The Left (Or The Right)
It’s no surprise then that Opposites is an album of contrasts, both subtle and overt, yet the sprawling body of work is very much unified and seamless. Each disc is given a title, and with it, bearing the moods and lyrical outpouring fitting of the name.
‘The Sand At The Core Of Our Bones’ is a bleak and dark chapter rooted in the past, brutally examining the difficulties of life and crumbling relationships, with the occasional tinge of nostalgia and the bubbling ferocity of rage. ‘The Land At The End Of Our Toes’, on the other hand, looks forward to the future with a more optimistic lens, musing on one’s hopes and fears, and finding ways to make things better and more wholesome.
Disc One - The Sand At The Core Of Our Bones
The first disc begins with a run of anthems, starting with the slow-building synth-laced epic 'Different People'. The upbeat, euphoric music matches the twisted optimism of the lyrics, and is the great showcase of Neil's gorgeous vocals, bathed in reverb.
First single 'Black Chandelier' is revealed next; unexpectedly plain upon first listen, but morphs into a typical barnstorming Biffy bombast after the bridge. The track has seen decent crossover success on pop radio, reaching 14 on the UK Singles Chart, as well as ascending to number 1 on the UK Rock Chart. Staccato slices of guitar punctuate 'Sounds Like Balloons' over a galloping rhythm, before an unexpected harp interlude reveals the unwieldy disc titles in the chorus. Surprisingly, they make for catchy sing-alongs.
Third single 'Opposite' wanders into mid-tempo ballad territory, but fortunately avoids cloying sentimentality with sharp, hard-hitting lyrics ("You are the loneliest person that I've ever known/We are joined at the surface but nowhere else"). It's a brief respite from the punchy, buzz saw riffs of 'The Joke's On Us', and the chattering computer beeps and monster riffs of 'A Girl And His Cat'.
'Biblical' is the second single from the album; its cinematic pop-rock glistening with orchestral touches, and the song has a chorus fit for festival faithful to bounce along to, but 'The Fog' is where the first disc gets really interesting. Slowing down the pace, the dark and hazy song is minimalist and sorrowful ("The fog has cast a shadow homeward/We're losing our direction/So forget the whole thing"), anchored by a keyboard part that wouldn't be out of place on an 80's sci-fi flick. It's one of the band's most daring moves thus far, and the glorious noise rock outro builds to a crescendo of doom.
The album never lets the listener truly settle, and whilst wallowing in the pool of accumulated emotional outpouring, the tempo is suddenly ramped up on the punky, punchy 'Little Hospitals', replete with its snarling, snotty vocals and bizarre lyrics (the winner being the opening lines of "I'll turn your baby into lemonade/Suckle lemons and trade, trade, trade"). And how does disc one close off? With 'The Thaw', a swinging ballad, complete with twanging country guitar elements that suddenly lurches into a magnificent stadium-sized sing-along. Even the pacing within songs cannot be trusted.
Disc Two - The Land At The End Of Our Toes
A common question asked of double albums is "could it all have been condensed into just one album?" Biffy answered this with a single-disc edition of Opposites, trimming the 20 tracks down to 14 - a relatively rare and compromising act. By releasing both editions, the band has shown that whilst the artistic narrative of Opposites is important, it's still flexible enough to lose a track here or there, and not lose integrity.
As the album careens into its second disc, the quality and range of ideas on display is vast, and it's a quantity that normally sees an artist stockpile them for later releases. But Biffy is just warming up, and the pompous and heavy 'Stingin' Belle' sets the tone for the emotionally brighter half, with lyrics as stinging as its title ("Grow some balls and speak your mind"). The song is a rousing spiritual successor to 'The Captain' from Only Revolutions, with an oh-so-Scottish bagpipe bridge that brings it to a triumphant climax.
A throbbing bass line highlights the urgency of 'Modern Magic Formula', whose lyrics, as the title implies, hint at a 'magic formula' that'll solve the problems in a relationship. Reconciliation is on the horizon, but Neil, with typical acerbity, admits that "I'm trying the best I can, but there's a white flag burning in my hand". 'Spanish Radio' marks another bizarre-but-it-works creative detour, employing an exquisite trumpet intro and acoustic flamenco-style guitars to create a completely new sound for the band.
The album's fourth single, 'Victory Over The Sun' is a dour, meditative and nostalgic affair, but is lyrically strong, with possible references to Johnston's drinking issues ("Collapse in front of all of your peers/Stop bleeding, keep blocking your ears/Eating babies, drinking black brandy/Squinting all night through your demonic haze"). The darkness soon makes way for the sunniest Biffy song yet: the power-popping 'Pocket'. If it weren't for the brilliant unorthodox lyrics and Neil's trademark Scottish burr, one might mistake them for a completely different band, and the catchy, toe-tapping, piano-led rhythm is one of the unexpected highlights of the album.
As we reach the final few songs of the album, the mood has dramatically shifted to a more positive space, but with a bitter yet determined viewpoint. This attitude fuels the intriguing and loopy 'Trumpet Or Tap', with its waltzy tempo, bluesy guitar notes, and humourous vocal patterns. A moment of sombre reflection is found next on 'Skylight', and similar to 'The Fog' on disc one, shows Biffy making a mature attempt at a subdued but ominous ballad. "If this is an accident then where's the hurt?" asks Neil on 'Accident Without Emergency', a return to stadium-rock posturing with lumbering drums that show no signs of flagging energy levels.
Quite the opposite in fact; 'Woo Woo' is one of the most boisterous songs on Opposites, and with a title like that, how could it not be? Unashamedly giddy and upbeat, Neil makes grand declarations in the midst of a personal renaissance, such as "I wanna change, I wanna listen/My selfish ways have reached their limit", and naively yet passionately implores "I will love you for the rest of my life/Can you love me 'til the end of time?". These pave the way for the album's final statement, 'Picture A Knife Fight' - a mirror image of opener 'Different People', interbred with 'Pocket'.
Let's Move Along, And Not Diminish
Opposites confirms that whilst Biffy's music still flows with eclectic electricity, their confidence in the power of bombastic, stadium-sized anthems has increased from Only Revolutions. Catchy hooks abound throughout heavier and quieter moments alike, and the band is clearly aware of its talents in shaping their post-hard core, grunge and prog rock influences into radio-ready pop.
That's not to say that this album is merely Only Revolutions, Part 2; experimentation has been sought out in earnest, and melded with the band's oddball humour and macabre lyrical backbone. As stated before, listeners will hear (in varying levels of contrivance) bagpipes, harps, kazoos, a mariachi band, tap dancing, church organ and tubular bells, in addition to the band's rock-standard angular-but-booming guitars, pulsating bass and delirious drumming.
It is these little complexities that break up the relentless onslaught of emotion and thunder which stadium rock can so easily fall foul to, and provide a fresh, unsettling and intriguing look at the genre. The melodies soar, but the stop-start dynamics will often cut them in full-flight, bringing them back down to earth with a biting line - whether it's on guitar or in lyric-form.
Double albums are bold statements regardless of the source, and Biffy's dogged decision to weather through the making of one was as much about dealing with personal demons as it was making a definitive artistic declaration.
Some of the best art is born through a labour of inner turmoil, and the timing of both factors in this case has resulted in not the leanest of albums, or even their best one. The process behind it, the relentless passion, determination and commitment that went into it; that is what marks Opposites as probably the most important Biffy Clyro album thus far. It's an album that saved the band, and the road ahead is as unpredictable as the twists and turns found within these songs.