Written for 14th Floor / Warner Bros. Records, January 2013.
The story of Biffy Clyro is as romantic as it is archetypal. Three childhood friends from Ayrshire formed a band, delivered three albums of abrasive youthful exuberance and finally cracked the big time when their fourth – 2007’s Puzzle – hit the charts at #2. By the time the promotion of their fifth album Only Revolutions had ceased, they were bona fide stars who could headline festivals, fill arenas and deliver hit singles in an era in which rock bands rarely trouble the charts. With well over a million album sales to their name, no-one would’ve been too surprised to see complacency set in.
Such thoughts, however, certainly weren’t going to cramp the creativity of Biffy Clyro vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Simon Neil who instead proposed the idea of a career-defining double-album, which was subsequently titled Opposites. “It was a reaction to music being so disposable these days. Music still matters to people but often it’s just a distraction. I want our music to be a companion to people’s lives and something they’ll listen to in the future, and not just something that they’re into for a week or two until they move onto the next thing.”
“We were excited by the prospect, but the question seemed to be: how do we achieve that?” recalls bassist James Johnston. Yet not one member of the band – completed by James’s twin brother, drummer Ben – could’ve foreseen its inspiration.
As much as Only Revolutions delivered everything that the trio had ever dreamed of, the subsequent burnout slowly wore the band down. As they drifted apart, Ben’s drinking manifested itself with increased unpredictability. “I’d play these things down,” he admits. “Like, we got through it, so it’s okay. But I didn’t realise how much I was letting the guys down.”
The fractions within the band had already inspired Simon’s writing and the 45 new songs that he had written at home had been whittled down to 24 prior to arriving in Santa Monica to commence work with producer GGGarth Richardson. The day before recording was due to start, Ben became lost in a fog of alcohol and blacked out. Something had to change.
“I’d written all of these songs about us ending up in a situation I couldn’t believe we’d ended up in,” grimaces Simon. “Then one day we decided that we couldn’t let something as silly as drink get in the way of something we’d spent our life doing. We weren’t willing to let this take hold of our journey.”
“After the first couple of weeks in Santa Monica, I thought we were not only not going to make the album, but that we’d end up going home with no band,” adds James, almost struggling to get the words out. “For a few months it felt like it might not last. That’s absolutely devastating to even say out loud.”
The proposition that Ben should stop drinking was embraced by the drummer. “It’s usually the person who causes the trouble who realises last. That sounded like a good idea, because cutting down didn’t seem to be working. It never does,” he opines, offering a self-deprecating half-chuckle. “I’m truly grateful that I’ve got people in my life who are so sensitive, so close and who care about me. They could’ve just as easily kicked me out of the band.”
Subtitled The Sand At The Core Of Our Bones, the first disc of Opposites focuses on the dark challenges of Biffy Clyro’s past. Lyrics such as “It could’ve been a wonderful year / Instead we might not make it to the end” (from Biblical) and “The fog has cast a shadow homeward / We’re losing our direction so forget the whole thing” (from The Fog) reflect the band’s fragile mental state.
“There were a couple of times where I realised that my words sounded so sad,” says Simon, who’s happier discussing general lyrical themes rather than specific lines. “But you’ve got to be honest with yourself. That’s how I felt at the time, so you have to learn to trust your muse and to trust your instinct. I love listening to bands when I feel that someone is really giving me a glimpse into their mind and soul. I’m not afraid of that because music isn’t just a bit of razzle-dazzle. It should be something that can connect with people, and that starts with yourself.”
Ben’s recovery and subsequent battering ram performances re-energised the band. As James recalls with a smile that triumphs over his earlier controlled expression: “Our history shone through and our love for each other brought us back together. If we were a different band we could’ve said fuck this, let’s go home. Because we care about each other, we managed to bring it back together to be stronger than what we were before. When you go through difficult times you can go one of two ways, and thankfully we went up.”
The album’s second disc – The Land At The End Of Our Toes – examines a brighter future for the band with positivity flowing through lines such as “If we hold on, there’s a victory over the sun” (from Victory Over The Sun) and “Feeling alive with a throbbing mind, you’re never gonna break my stand” (Skylight) ahead of the album’s climactic rallying mantra: “We’ve got to stick together.”
As Simon surmises: “The second disc is a lot more positive. It’s about sticking together and feeling like we can achieve anything if the three of us are doing it together. The first album is very singular and very inward looking from an individual’s perspective.”
Opposites was recorded over the course of five months at Los Angeles studio The Village. The studio’s past (encompassing sessions from Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and many more) provided to be particularly inspiring for Ben. “Its history lets you believe that maybe what you’re doing will be considered a classic album, because you think about those bands being there. Did they think they were recording a classic? Of course not, they thought they were just working on their most recent album at the time. And you think maybe one day people will be saying, wow, Biffy did Opposites here. That really spurs you on to try to be creative.”
The very core of Opposites brims with fresh new ideas at every turn. Opener Different People evolves from a tender introduction before erupting into fierce waves of impassioned energy; the stop-start riffs in Sounds Like Balloons are interrupted by a harp; Little Hospitals factors in an explosion of kazoos; and The Thaw offers a redemptive closing statement to the album’s first disc.
The second disc continues in a similar vein with Stingin’ Belle, which reprises Biffy Clyro’s angular alt-rock attack before atmospherically turning to the Scottish highlands with militaristic drum rolls and soaring bagpipes; the Love-meets-Rush mariachi sound-clash of Spanish Radio; and Skylight which, together with the opening disc’s The Fog, is one of two keyboard-based songs written with the help of leading contemporary soundtrack composer Clint Mansell (Black Swan, Moon, The Wrestler) who helped the band to strip those compositions back to their very essence. “He’s a minimalist and we’re maximalists,” says Simon, evidently appreciating his own wordplay. Also featured is Ben Bridwell from Band of Horses who offers his “beautiful, fragile and emotive” Southern twang to Opposite and Accident Without Emergency.
Opposites also finds the band collaborating once more with renowned composer David Campbell who also applied his talents to Only Revolutions. His masterly command of orchestral arrangements again adds an undeniable layer of depth and emotion to Biffy Clyro’s work. It’s certainly a leap beyond the band’s early years, when financial restrictions would see Simon playing violin parts or when an orchestra was imitated by layering together multiple performances by two guest musicians.
“Basically the remit was that nothing is too crazy or mental to try,” states Ben, glowing with pride that almost every idea they tried worked out – one of the few exceptions being the talented if expensive gospel choir that was ultimately edited from the final version of Biblical. “The real challenge is doing that while maintaining the sound of the band and the identity you’ve built up over several records,” adds James.
That identity is something that fascinates Simon, who sees themes emerging throughout the band’s growing discography. “I see Puzzle, Only Revolutions and Opposites as a trilogy of records that are very personal, and that are about discovering what life is about – all the highs and lows of what being an adult entails. They’re very emotive, spacious and dramatic records. But you have to keep giving yourself new challenges.”
Given the trials that it required, the creation of Opposites can hardly be considered the result of a fortuitous collection of events. However, it’s a body of work that can only come from the shared human experiences – as uplifting and devastating as they can be – of three uniquely interconnected souls. None of the band are certain what will happen next – maybe James and Ben will become more involved in the band’s songwriting, the general methods of working will change, and the sound is likely to be stripped back after three albums of increasingly detailed production. But as Simon concludes, anything could happen.
“Even when Only Revolutions came out, if you said we’d make a double album next and what it would be about, I’d say that’s ridiculous. You never know what life’s going to throw at you, what it’s going to inspire you to do, or what challenges it will give you.” He pauses, obviously content that Biffy Clyro’s future is once again secure. “We see ourselves as family and friends first, but there’s no way we’d let this band fall apart.”