A couple of tracks into disc two of Opposites, the much-awaited newie from Britain's only properly massive rock band that aren’t Muse, there’s a song called ‘Modern Magic Formula’. Its title is appropriate but also a bit optimistic - by the time you actually get that far you’re so bored by Biffy Clyro’s 'formula' that it’s hard to pay any attention to this particular version of it. Whatever magic was here has long since drained.
Biffy Clyro (MON THE BIFF! etc etc) are genuinely Britain's biggest proper meat-and-potatoes rock band. It happened somewhere between their last two albums, 2007’s Puzzle and 2009’s massive Only Revolutions and the status was confirmed when ‘Many Of Horror’ became a weirdly appropriate X Factor winner's single and 2010’s Christmas number one. They deserve it, too. They came up the old fashioned way - no hype, no flash in the pan success, just a slowly growing fanbase responding to hard graft on the road and a succession of passionate and creative rock records that tempered off-beat hardcore with nagging skyscraper choruses. Listen to their 2002 single ‘57’, it’s all there; the hooks, the riffs, the playing with time signatures and form. They extrapolated out from there, worked their arses off and went justly stratospheric. When bands get this big inevitably someone, somewhere along the line goes 'alright lads... how about we make this next one a double?' and because they’re so big, so respected and so well liked no-one has quite got the balls to say 'um...are you sure that’s a good idea?' and hand them a copy of Stadium Arcadium to drive the point home.
Which brings us to Biffy album number six, Opposites, 20 tracks, though a comparatively modest 80 minutes. A double. Double records are rarely a good move. Sometimes they’re necessary, Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness pushed in so many directions that one disc could never have contained it. Then there’s The White Album, whose length was the only way to satisfy three increasingly ambitious and prolific songwriters refusing to give ground to each other. Alas, neither is the case here. The biggest and most obvious problem with Opposites is that it has neither the ambition nor the creative variety to fill its two discs - it simply didn’t need to be this long. As such it stretches its ideas and overstays its welcome by quite some measure.
To justify its length, Opposites needed to be a major step forward. It isn’t. Instead it’s a solidification of the band, a distillation and sharpening of the pop monster they’ve become. And that’s fine, in places they do it really very well; there’s just so damn much of it. There’s a quadruple punch of titanic songs to kick things off, ‘Different People’ is everything the Biff do well, growing from a quiet, low key intro into an awkward, slashy riff that opens up to a walloping, gigantic chorus. It’s a chorus that belts you around the ears, that could drive the breath from your lungs with its seismic, ballooning, majesty. It’s a great chorus. It’s followed by ‘Black Chandelier’, a song lobbed with devastating accuracy at the Radio 1 playlist and none the worse for it, nodding to Eighties power-pop and Nineties grunge, and another whopper of a chorus. ‘Sounds Like Balloons’ has one of those mischievous, spidery riffs Simon Neil is so adept at, and then WHAM! Another crashing, gloriously huge catchy bit. It’s followed by the title track, a ballad which Simon Cowell has probably already circled in red pen. It’s pretty enough, its orchestral additions swirl sadly and its plaintive “you need to be with somebody else” refrain is the emotional heart of disc one. It’s inevitable, and it’s fine. And then... Well, then the band repeat those ideas over again for 80 minutes. We know Biffy Clyro can write satisfying riffs, big monster choruses and the odd weepy, but we also know they can take us by surprise and rewrite the rule book - sadly they seem to have forgotten how here, just when it’s needed the most.
Whenever they break the form, as in the sparse, ghostly distortion at the close of ‘Fog’, or the flamenco trumpeting on ‘Spanish Radio’ it just serves to remind you how little variety is on display. Every barn burning rocker has an amazing chorus, every ballad is a melancholy gut punch, there’s 20 potential singles here, but when you line them up, one after another, virtually none of them stand out. Lyrically the emotional tone may switch on disc two, but musically there’s no distinction and it means when perfectly fine songs come along, the pop-Springsteenisms of ‘Pockets’, or the fantastic, atmospheric ‘Accident Without Emergency’ their elements are so over familiar you basically ignore them.
You can take any song here and find within it everything that’s good about Biffy Clyro. But 'everything that’s good about Biffy Clyro' simply doesn’t work in doses this large. It does good songs a disservice. What we get is Britain’s best proper rock band doing what they do until we’re numb to what makes them special. What we needed was an album half as long, or twice as interesting.
5Marc Burrows's Score