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.”