ABOUT BIFFY CLYRO–
2007 was the year the tortoise overtook the complacent hare and claimed the glory. Faced with a musical climate of TV talent freakshow contestants momentarily setting the gossip world aflutter before plunging back into obscurity, and fame hungry starlets publicly unravelling in front of the paparazzi, the alternative came in the shape of ‘Puzzle,’ the fourth album by Ayrshire rock trio Biffy Clyro, which exploded to propel the band out of the underground where they’d been honing their craft and into the mainstream consciousness. The gold-selling major label debut went on to shift over 250,000 copies, to the delight of the loyal and passionate fanbase who had been willing them on for the past decade. An overnight success story, this is not.
Biffy Clyro came together in 1995 in a school in Kilmarnock, just outside of Glasgow, when childhood friends Simon Neil (vocals/guitar) and twins James (bass/vocals) and Ben Johnston (drums/vocals) started playing music together. United by a love of underground, experimental rock and post-hardcore bands such as Braid and Karate, along with the starrier likes of Guns N’Roses and Metallica, they quickly honed their own unique sound, a mind boggling mix of off-kilter tempos, itchy, unpredictable guitars, soulful choruses and feral screams, sewn together into a strange tapestry of sound that sat resolutely apart anything else being made at the time, both in spirit and – thanks to their admirable refusal to uproot from their hometown for the dog eat dog music community of London – geographically too.
Their first three albums — ‘Blackened Sky’, ‘The Vertigo Of Bliss’ and ‘Infinity Land’ — arrived in a barrage of creativity, a record released every year and relentless touring building up a small but devoted army of followers. Team Biffy’s ranks grew exponentially when ‘Puzzle’ came along and stunned listeners with its achingly personal, rich and complex take on rock anthems, and Simon, James and Ben found themselves playing Wembley Stadium with Muse, headlining the John Peel Stage at Glastonbury and gigging with The Rolling Stones. U2 even supported them at a special Little Noise session at London’s Union Chapel, although the highlight for the band came when they headlined in front of a hometown crowd at Glasgow’s SECC.
“That’s where I saw Metallica in 1991,” says Simon. “We played there last December, in that same room. It’s amazing how things work out.”
Amazing, but perhaps not surprising when you hear their new album ‘Only Revolutions’. It is, quite simply, a monster of rock. After the overwhelming sadness of ‘Puzzle’, which was written in the aftermath of Simon’s mother passing away, ‘Only Revolutions’ has a sense of joy and determination, from the military thump of feet that heralds in opener ‘The Captain’ before it slips into an explosion of mammoth riffage, fizzing pop vocals and euphoric horns, through the agony and ecstasy questioning of the acoustic ‘God And Satan’, the sexy, sleazy ‘Born On A Horse’, the hauntingly romantic yet roaringly, soaringly powerful ‘Many Of Horror’ to the dark and visceral nastiness of ‘Shock Shock’. And, of course, the already familiar skewed cinematic rock of the massive top 10 singles ‘Mountains’ and ‘That Golden Rule’, which fans have already clutched firmly to their collective bosom like old friends.
Simon explains: “Puzzle is so heavily about sadness and depression and being in a really horrible part of your life that everybody will go through. This one just felt immediately more hopeful. I think all good music and good art is a reflection of how the creator is feeling at that certain point.”
“The title is taken from a book by Mark Danielewski, he’s my favourite writer,” he continues. “In half of the book the man’s telling his half of the story and the other half is the girl telling her side of the story. That really touched me. With the songs I’m trying to give both lovers’ aspect of the same story. It’s a give and take you have when you’re madly in love with someone, but also you both see exactly the same things in completely different ways. The title ‘Only Revolutions’ summed it up perfectly.”
The album was recorded in LA during the summer, with ‘Puzzle’ producer Garth Richardson (Rage Against The Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers) at the helm once more. Their relationship got off to a rocky start, but these days he’s embraced as part of Team Biffy.
“Last time we butted heads a lot,” Simon admits. “We got in each other’s faces trying to feel each other out. This time I think he trusts us a lot more, we trust him a lot more. Last time Garth didn’t understand why we were doing weird things with the songs. It’s what we do! But he nailed it, it’s amazing.”
Garth isn’t the only person to bring his own special brand of magic to ‘Only Revolutions’. Multi Grammy-winning composer David Campbell – who played bass on Marvin Gaye’s ‘Let’s Get It On’, has worked with such luminaries as Carole King, Bob Dylan, Metallica, and Radiohead, won an Oscar for writing the score to ‘Brokeback Mountain’, and fathered Beck – adds lush orchestral flourishes, strings and horns throughout. And after spending time on the road with Queens Of The Stone Age, Biffy made firm friends with the inimitable Josh Homme. Keen to collaborate with the like-minded frontman, they invited him in to contribute to ‘Bubbles’, a great sprawling, spaced-out epic that leaps out of the speakers to beat you merrily into submission.
“Someone like Josh, it’s like he’s a musical lifer,” says Simon. “We are as well, and I think when you meet people you can see in their eyes whether they really mean it or not. It’s kind of weird being friends with someone who’s a hero like Josh, but I see in him what I see in myself and he sees in us what he saw in himself, that kind of hunger and willingness and doing it for the right reasons. It’s really easy to connect with people because of that.”
For all the starry input though, this is very much about the three old friends in the band. They still rehearse in a farmhouse near their childhood homes, and when they get together you can always expect them to come up with the unexpected. Not one of their albums sounds too much like its predecessor, each one brimming over with new ideas and directions that couldn’t be contained even if they tried to rein them in and tame them. And that’s why ‘Only Revolutions’, while being unmistakably a Biffy album, is something brand new again, perfectly crafted, produced and polished without ever once losing the heart, soul and strangeness that means so much to those who have been faithful from the start. And most of all, it means everything to Simon Neil and James and Ben Johnston.
“We’re doing this for each other,” says Simon. “We’re still as much of a gang as we were at the start. I’m doing this for Ben and James as much as they’re doing it for me. I think that’s important. Sometimes success can drive a wedge between a band, but because we’ve been friends since we were eight, playing music since we were 13 or 14, we couldn’t live life without each other in it and we couldn’t live life without this band. It really is what makes my heart beat every day.”
Comfort zones are overrated–just ask the five members of the Atlanta-based rock outfit O’Brother. When they decamped from their home turf in early 2013 to take over a rented house on wintry Long Island, the idea wasn’t just to update the hard-edged sound they’d achieved on their debut full-length Garden Window with producer Mike Sapone (known for his work with Brand New, Crime in Stereo, Public Enemy and more). This time out, the band reconvened with Sapone to embark on a mind-expanding journey into strange new territory, lyrically and sonically. All it took was a little inspiration.
“I think with this record, we wanted to leave more room to allow the songs to change in the studio,” says lead singer and guitarist Tanner Merritt. “We basically had the structure, the skeletons, for all the songs, but we did a lot more experimentation while recording than we’d done in the past, which was a goal of ours going in. We just wanted an opportunity to work with soundscapes and layers and noises–and we were definitely listening to a lot more psychedelic music. We were on a huge Pink Floyd kick and watching live DVDs every day back at the house.”
Right from the opening ambient guitar strains of the leadoff track “Come into the Divide,” there’s a confident and resolute intention behind O’Brother’s new sound. It seems almost at odds with the album’s title, Disillusion, but then, grappling with uncertainty–and for that matter, casting it in the positive light of infinite possibility–has clearly become one of the band’s strengths. Another case in point: the new album marks the debut of Jordan McGhin, who joined the permanent lineup during last year’s summer tour, in the wake of longtime guitarist Aaron Wamack’s departure.
“Jordan has a real unique writing style when it comes to heavy music,” observes drummer Michael Martens, “but if you hand him an acoustic guitar, he’ll play some of the most amazing classical stuff you’ve ever heard. He’s invaluable because of his spot specifically in the band–he only plays baritone guitar with us, so that gives us a lot of our extra punch and low end, which I guess we’re becoming known for. His complementary parts really help make it all work.”
A tight camaraderie and chemistry keeps O’Brother together, infusing Disillusion with a focused energy that seems to flow directly from the hive mind of the band. It starts with the rhythm section; Martens and bassist Anton Dang have been playing together since they were teenagers, crafting an unspoken symbiosis that comes through in the heavy-leaded syncopation of “Perilous Love” or the well-timed hits that pepper the liquid atmospherics over the first half of the title track. Meanwhile, McGhin and founding guitarist Johnny Dang engage in a near-constant interplay, orchestrated with precision in the lushly textured “Path of Folly”–a persistent groove that surges with high-flying overdrive and tastefully twangy guitar passages.
At the center of it all is Merritt, who clearly set out to test himself. “Sometimes you get tired of doing the same thing,” he says. “I’d been listening to Tom Waits and other people who do crazy things with their voice, and I’ve always done the back-and-forth with pretty vocals and the abrasive coloring, so I wanted to step outside my boundaries a little bit. Trying to put that additional character in your vocals is almost like what I would presume acting to be like. You try to get in a mode and a mindset, and let each take and each part have its own existence and not be so stale.”
The approach stands out in an epic track like “Oblivion,” where Merritt pushes the upper reaches of his range in the verses (“I make my way like a wandering amputee”) and then lays back into a falsetto whisper during the hypnotic, Zeppelin-esque breakdown (“There’s an endless divide between me and where I need to be”). He drew on deeply personal experiences to craft his lyrics, particularly on the moody groove-rocker “Context,” which was inspired in part by a turbulent relationship and by his father’s struggle with memory loss. When Merritt sings “Trade my wounded pride for some peace of mind,” the dual perspectives of father and son–and of significant others in turmoil–shine through with stark clarity.
“We were pulling 12 to 14-hour days recording,” he recalls, “and then we would go back to the house and I would do another four or five hours each night trying to write lyrics to these songs. So there was very little sleeping, but it was amazing because it was the first time that we were able to be completely immersed in the creative process. We left home, rented a house and it was just the five of us with Mike [Sapone], all the time. We were always doing something creative.”
Sequenced like an episodic dream, with each song shape-shifting into the next, Disillusion captures O’Brother in a true state of creative transformation. The sprawling concept albums of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson and more provided the grist, but these five intrepid seekers have crafted a complex slab of bejeweled art-rock that shimmers vividly all on its own. With multiple points of entry and a host of memorable stops along the way, the album defines a journey that almost anyone can grasp: in this crazy tech-fueled world where literally everything can feel like it’s on a downward spiral, sometimes we just need to slow down, sit still and listen.
“To me, the way I’ve seen this record take form, it’s about not being scared of disillusion,” Martens explains. “Everybody has a certain disillusion with the things that they believe and feel, and how they compare themselves to other people, and I think that comes through. But it’s a hopeful disillusionment. We don’t want to be all about doom and gloom, and we’re not trying to question things in a negative manner. We want people to know that lyrically and musically, we’ve got an optimistic, realistic view on things. We’ve always had a tendency to stray from the beaten path, but to us, it’s okay to think a little differently, as long as your motives are positive.”