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. In 2007, their fourth album Puzzle hit the charts at #2. When the promotion of their fifth album Only Revolutions had ceased, they were bona fide stars, headlining festivals, filling arenas and delivering hit singles in an era in which rock bands rarely trouble the charts.
With well over a million album sales, their success only boosted their creativity. The Biffy Clyro vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Simon Neil proposed the idea of a career-defining double-album, which was subsequently titled Opposites. This double-album was their reaction to the disposable music people use as distractions for a week or two then move on. “I want our music to be a companion to people’s lives and something they’ll listen to in the future.”
The rest of the band, James Johnston (bassist) and his twin brother Ben (drummer), were excited for the prospect but could never have foreseen its inspiration.
Only Revolutions delivered everything the trio had ever dreamed of, but the subsequent burnout slowly wore the band down. As they drifted apart, Ben’s drinking manifested itself with increased unpredictability.
The fractions within the band inspired Simon’s writing prior to arriving in Santa Monica to commence work with producer GGGarth Richardson. The day before recording was due to start, Ben’s alcoholism got out of control. As tough as it was on the band’s relationship together, they were not willing to let this conflict end their journey.
Ben embraced the proposition that he should stop drinking. “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.”
Subtitled The Sand At The Core Of Our Bones, the first disc of Opposites focuses on the dark challenges of Biffy Clyro’s past, reflecting the band’s fragile mental state.
Ben’s recovery and subsequent battering ram performances re-energised the band. As James recalls with a smile triumphing 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 the lyrics. 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 at Los Angeles studio, The Village. The studio’s past (encompassing sessions from Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, etc.) inspired Ben. “Its history lets you believe that maybe what you’re doing will be considered a classic album.”
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 has keyboard-based songs written with the help of leading contemporary soundtrack composer Clint Mansell (Black Swan, Moon, The Wrestler). Mansell helped the band strip those compositions back to their very essence. Ben Bridwell, from Band of Horses, is also featured, offering 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 contributed to Only Revolutions). His masterly command of orchestral arrangements adds an undeniable layer of depth and emotion to Biffy Clyro’s work.
“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.”
Given the trials 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 manifested from the shared human experiences – as uplifting and devastating as they can be – of three uniquely interconnected souls.
“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.” Simon paused; 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.”