by Tom Luton
On their triumphant first foray into the world of film soundtracks, the Scottish rock titans rediscover the joy, discovery and invention that makes them so special.
At this stage in their career, Biffy Clyro are a band that require no introduction. In what remains one of the most heartwarming stories of 21st century rock music, through a combination of dogged determination, relentless touring, and world-beating songwriting the band ascended from perpetual underdogs of the underground scene to one of the countries most cherished arena rock bands. Their stratospheric rise reached its apex in 2013, when the bands magnus opus Opposites reached number 1 on the UK album charts and the band celebrated by delivering barnstorming headliner sets at the Reading and Leeds Festival. However, on their last release (2016’s Ellipsis) it seemed like the band may have reached a creative plateau. Whilst the album had its highlights, and even at their worst the band are still capable of outperforming the vast majority of their musical peers, the sense of unpredictability and madcap creativity that had defined the groups previous output and made it so compelling was difficult to find. For the first time in their career, it felt like the band where playing it safe and trying to recreate past glories, rather than pushing their sound forward. The band were in desperate need of a new challenge to reinvigorate their sound, and it seems that the opportunity presented by director and writer Jamie Adams’s upcoming film has provided just that. Relieved from the pressure and expectations of having to release a classic ‘Biffy’ album, the band have succeeded in re-defining their sound and exploring uncharted musical territory, in doing so assembling their most inspired collection of songs in the best part of a decade.
Biffy Clyro in action at Glastonbury 2017
Biffy have become renowned for their bombastic album openers, and Balance, Not Symmetry is no exception. However, whilst previous Biffy openers have often lured the listener in gently with their intros, the title-track shows the band at their most visceral, going for the jugular from the very first second. Pummeling riffs paired with intricate drum and bass interplay from twin brother Ben and James Johnston set the scene, before the vocals come crashing in, with frontman and principle songwriter Simon Neil screaming with aggression that harkens back to the hardcore influences of the band’s earlier albums such as The Vertigo of Bliss and Infinity Land. The track does not let up for the entirety of its runtime, as the verse’s transition perfectly into the kind of sky-scrapping, festival ready chorus the band deliver so well. At little more than 3 minutes long, the track is a fierce statement of intent that sends a clear message to any fans let down by Ellipsis: Biffy are back, and they’re not playing it safe this time round.
At their best, there is a sense of adventure that permeates the very fabric of a Biffy Clyro song. The band are astute at wrongfooting the listener, grabbing them by the wrist and leading them through the twists and turns of the musical mazes they construct. This sense of mischief is evident across the 17 tracks of the album, as the band frequently send tracks in unpredictable and unexpected directions. Lush and atmospheric dream pop segues into amphoral doom metal on the spellbinding outro of ‘Fever Dream’; on the magnificent ‘Sunrise’ 80’s style synths flourishes and sweet three-part harmonies collide with a thunderous riff reminiscent of Muse at their best; 2nd half highlight ‘Tunnels and Trees’ transitions from a single-note keyboard riff into a glorious anthemic chorus, before being interrupted mid-way through by a distorted, almost comical spoken word interlude. The band sound like their having most fun they’ve had in years, and this is reflected in the vibrancy of the songwriting on display. Where on Ellipsis it often felt that the band where losing sight of what made them so unique, on Balance, Not Symmetry the band fully embrace their own quirks and idiosyncrasies, and the album is all the better for it. However, two of the records finest moments come when the band rein in their more manic musical impulses and allow the strength of their songwriting to shine through. The electro-pop influenced ‘All Singing And All Dancing’ is arguably the closest the band have ever come to writing a straight-up pop song, and yet it is delivered with such conviction that it stands as one of the most joyous and uplifting pieces of music on the album. On the stunning ‘A Different Kind of Love’, the band cast aside all pretense and deliver one of the most sincere and open-hearted ballads of their career, with Neil’s poetic lyrics set against a gorgeous string arrangement and stirring vocal harmonies. The production on the album is excellent throughout, with producer Adam Noble creating the necessary sense of space to prevent the songs from collapsing under the weight of the ideas the band throw at them. The electronic and synth elements that seemed like unnecessary decoration on Ellipsis are here seamlessly integrated into the mix, executed in a manner that is incredibly tasteful and complements the bands varied instrumentation and exceptional musicianship.
This is not to say that the album is without its faults. Containing 17 tracks and clocking in at over an hour, the album requires a significant amount of investment from its audience, something which may render it inaccessible to the more casual listener. Given the nature of the project, it was inevitable that when viewed outside of the context of the upcoming film some of the tracks would struggle to stand on their own feet, with the trio of instrumental tracks that break up the album (‘Pink’, ‘Navy Blue’, ‘Yellow’), being largely unmemorable and offering little to the album. When judged against the quality of the songs surrounding them, tracks such as ‘Gates of Heaven’ and ‘Jasabiab’ feel underwritten, coming across more like unfinished sketches than fully fleshed out songs. However, these downsides pall into insignificance when one considers the sheer creativity and ingenuity of the album as a whole. After Ellipsis, doubts remained as to wherever Biffy Clyro would be able to rediscover the magic that earned them a legion of devoting fans and secured their place at the very top of the rock world. There where justifiable fears that one of the country’s most consistently brilliant bands may have entered a creative decline from which they could not come back. With this release, the band have eviscerated such doubts. Put simply, Balance, Not Symmetry is the sound of one of the UK’s finest bands embracing their own madness and falling in love with making music again. It’s bold and ambitious, overlong and imperfect, and unquestionably an album that requires patience and repeat listens for its artistry to be fully appreciated. But when it works, the results are simply magical, and ensure that Balance, Not Symmetry is one of years most creative and engaging albums so far.