It’s an inevitable fact that, as the music scene and the way we consume music changes, bands are forced to adapt. A good example of this ability to adjust is Biffy Clyro, who in their 21 year career have managed to keep their idiosyncratic style wholly their own, while still allowing room for maneuver into the arena rock band you see today. When it comes to their fans though, Biffy have always been the sort of band that inspires a cult following, and that feeling of ownership is a tough one to shake when all of a sudden even your non-music loving mate knows who they are.
It’s been three years since the release of double album Opposites, on which themes of alienation, death and fear contributed to a heavy-hitting record full of the intricacies the band are so rabidly loved for; where even the most radio-friendly of tracks, like the anthemic Black Chandelier, contain the trademark quirks and barely concealed rage that endeared them to their fans way back on 2002 debut Blackened Sky. The release of their seventh record, Ellipsis, in July this year sees the band treading lighter waters, but drummer Ben Johnston agrees it’s the band’s fourth record, Puzzle, which set Biffy on the path from fan’s band to mega-band. “We got over all of our being obstinate and being obscure and at times a little bit difficult to listen to. Then by the time it came to doing the fourth album we were ready to write songs that connected people in a way that we hadn’t before. Simon [Neil]’s writing came on leaps and bounds by the fourth album, he was just writing songs that everyone wanted to sing.”
Ellipsis irrevocably demonstrates the path Biffy have taken; opener Wolves Of Winter is almost a statement of intent, peppered with Ben’s trademark scattergun drums, punchy harmonies and a rather telling lyric – “we have achieved so much more than we possibly ever thought we could” – it sets the scene for Animal Style’s squalling guitar lines, frantic delivery and some pretty good swears, destined to be a live favourite thanks to the discordant piano stabs and hooting backing. Biffy do pissed off rage pretty fantastically, and Herex is a melodic ‘fuck you’, while Flammable’s buzzing guitar and twangy bass is the perfect example of a stadium rock song.
We’re not so concerned with showing off anymore
It’s on album high points, like the exemplary On A Bang, with its screamed vocal and cacophony of guitar noise, full of twists and turns, stops and starts, that the listener realises how far Biffy have come simply in the course of a handful of tracks. Simon’s plead on Howl that he’s “explosive and volatile” comes shackled to a stadium-sized chorus which takes the shine off his words somewhat. The low moments of the record point to tracks where Biffy’s distinct voice is lost amid kitsch and sentiment. The country-esque horror of Small Wishes borders on cheesy, while Re-Arrange’s coordinated handclaps, electronic flourishes and soft vocals is too slick by half.
According to Ben, the movement from weird little Scottish alt. band to stadium-sized festival-headlining rock behemoths has been a conscious decision that the band have entered into with their eyes wide open. “We try and create a new sound for ourselves, that’s a conscious effort, sometimes it’s a forced change, certainly with the new album it was. We had to stop ourselves falling into old recording styles and methods because we really wanted to change the sound and the atmosphere. We did things differently and it was uncomfortable at times, but we felt we had to do it to find something new and exciting and we think we have an album that really does set itself apart from the last three.”
It’s too much to ask of a band to stay where they are in their careers; as a fan you want them to explore their sound and build on it, not simply remain your band forever, and Ben’s emphatic that their current shift in direction isn’t just down to commercial viability. “We will always be a rock band and we always want to challenge ourselves. Our music education was listening to prog music and that will always be in our hearts, so there’s every chance that we will put a song like [heavy-hitting knotty rock track] In The Name Of Wee Man out on every record because it’s hard for us not to put out songs like that. But we also have a burning desire to write the best songs that we can write. We’re still very proud of all the albums we have made, but we’re all getting older and we all like different kinds of music, so that’s opened the doors for us to feel more comfortable with writing songs that are a bit more straight-forward. We’re not so concerned with showing off anymore.”
And how do the band feel about their fans’ reaction to this ‘straight-forward’ songwriting approach? “When you’re recording or mixing, you’re not really thinking too much of how people will react to it. Once you’ve picked your track list, that’s a victory. It’s probably quite dangerous to think of the fans too much during that process, it should be about making music for yourself that you enjoy, I think.”
And so, as musical trends change, perhaps we as fans have to accept that this is what Biffy are now; a hit-writing, stadium-sized, semi-naked rock trio that get played on Radio 2; where the average audience member may not be able to scream the lyrics to Toys, Toys, Toys, Choke, Choke, Choke, and may – just may – own the Matt Cardle version of Many of Horror. But honestly, would you begrudge your band this success?