Review Summary: Scottish pop-rock underdogs get a big-budget makeover, with surprisingly excellent results
Of late, Biffy Clyro have been receiving much attention in the British media, thanks to a string of high-profile support slots and the top 20 success of singles Saturday Superhouse and Living is a Problem Because Everything Dies. Accordingly, anticipation for parent album Puzzle is at fever pitch. However, the comparative restraint – read: disappointing lack of ideas – displayed on Superhouse, Living is a Problem and last year’s download-only offering Semi-Mental may have led to commercial acceptance, but it has also brought fierce criticism from long-term fans. Gone are the post-whatever breakdowns and atonal wig-outs which previously characterised their sound, replaced by shamelessly populist melodies, arena-ready choruses, bouncing basslines and fucking choirs. Success, it seems, comes at the price of individuality, and in achieving their dubious aim of slotting in alongside the flavourless indie bands currently doing big business in the UK, Biffy risk alienating their notoriously hardcore fanbase and neutralising the spark that made them so appealing in the first place.
However, while the wilfully obtuse elements of their music are certainly much less in evidence on Puzzle than prior effort Infinity Land, Biffy haven’t quite abandoned all pretensions of artistic integrity and sold their souls to the NME just yet. In the wake of the play-it-safe opening brace of singles, third track Who’s Got a Match? is fantastically daft – how many other bands in this age of musical ultra-ultra-conservatism would have the audacity to pair the track’s clanking Roobarb and Custard-ish rhythms with messed up lyrics like “the midget is frigid, I put it to you”? As the Dust Dances, meanwhile, is a timely reminder of Biffy’s skill in conveying emotion via the most unconventional means: lines such as “there’s a man on the corner selling dozens of bones/every type of bone/except the one that I want” are given surprising melancholic impact by the utter dejection in Simon Neil’s voice. Even the comparatively undistinguished Get Fucked Stud is utterly redeemed when all instrumentation suddenly subsides and Neil’s hilariously angelic falsetto admonition, “get FUUUUUUUCKED stud,” issues from the speakers. Genius! This band is clearly the same bunch of contrary types that they ever were, and the fruits of their three year absence are truly fantastic.
In this company, even the brazenly commercial moments deserve re-evaluation. Despite its one and only hook being directly lifted from L7’s Everglade, Semi-Mental is several dozen notches above the riff-oriented FM rock pedalled by the likes of Feeder; Saturday Superhouse’s haphazard riffs and nonsensical but soaring chorus actually grow more and more affecting with each listen. The stone-cold killer melody and heart-swelling sentiment of opening track Living is a Problem, meanwhile, manages to transcend the song’s somewhat over-polished production. What’s more, in a nod to previous album opener Glitter and Trauma, it’s preceded by a minute and a half of free-form pissing about; something sure to bewilder newcomers and put sceptical long-term fans at ease.
Though the super-slick production of the new material has been a point of widespread contention amongst naysayers, in the context of the whole album it makes much more sense. GGGarth ‘Rage Against The Machine’ Richardson’s input might reign in some of their more esoteric excesses, but it also adds a widescreen sweep to their sound that was only really evident on their previous releases in spite of the buffed but somewhat listless mix. A Whole Child Ago and Now I’m Everyone slyly mock the indie-loving hand that feeds them by appropriating the kind of brittle guitar motifs and dispassionate, clipped vocal deliveries that bands with a millionth of their creativity (hello, Bloc Party) have made their fortunes from; crucially, however, there is a million times more vibrancy and vitality coursing through these songs. The likes of The Conversation Is… and Semi-Mental, meanwhile, are not anaemic, rickety indie, but muscular, confidently executed modern rock.
Folding Stars arrives towards the end of the album, and forms its devastating centrepiece. Dryly delivered soundbites such as “tomorrow is a promise to no-one” and “all the happy people are crying” are bleak and crushing enough, but the real thrust of the track is as a heart-rending elegy to Neil’s mother. In lesser hands, the straightforwardness of the words “Eleanor/I would do anything for another minute with you, cause/It’s not getting easier” would ring fairly hollow, but Biffy know when to exercise restraint and a killer chord change. And guess what – the results are actually ***ing beautiful, and sentiments that might otherwise come across as well-worn and unimaginative are invested with a truly affecting, lump-in-throat sincerity. In the wake of emotional U-bomb of Folding Stars, Biffy deliver a knockout sucker-punch with the following 9/15ths. A mesmerising, bombastic wall of noise – imagine, if you can, Tim Burton meets The Omen – Simon’s melodramatic intonation of “we’re on a hell-slide/help us, help us,” backed by a choir and string section, sounds positively, terrifyingly apocalyptic.
This magnum opus concludes, perversely enough, with a sparsely orchestrated acoustic lament called Machines. Lyrically it is a continuation of the pervading themes of the album, but lines such as “I would dig a thousand holes to lie next to you,” are oddly beatific and yearning, rather than depressive. “I’m not savouring life,” mourns Neil. “I’ve forgotten how good it could be to feel alive.” I’ll go right ahead and draw the obvious conclusion: if you feel the same way about your existence, then invest some time in this fantastic, supremely life-affirming disc. In a world where ‘mediocre’ has become the new ‘great’, Biffy are waging a one-band war against the ideas-free, musically-illiterate doggrel that the populace of this wretched country are willing to lap up with sickening eagerness. Whether or not this 24 carat instant-classic will be the Trojan horse that gains them access to the pop premier league remains to be seen, but if it doesn’t achieve its deserved thirty-week residency at number one then, frankly, there is no hope for humanity.
well written review, but personally i don't understand how you can see this album as somehow making a stand against the world which sees 'mediocre as great': if anything this album is mediocre.
for me the whole appeal of biffy was the uber-creative and aggressive changes of pace and tone that filled The Vertigo Of Bliss and Infinity Land. compared to those albums Puzzle just sounds equal parts ordinary and lame. 'Living Is A Problem...', 'Get Fu*ked Stud' and possibly the latter half of 'Now I'm Everyone' are the only things that even approach the true greatness of those two former albums.
i know it's pretty crappy of me to offer this general criticism of your opinion without any real justification, i'll try and write a contrasting review or soundoff at some point over the next few days. This Message Edited On 06.04.07This Message Edited On 06.04.07
OK, granted they've kind of dumbed themselves down, but to be fair it was the weird-for-the-sake-of-it element that made Infinity Land and TVOB kind of impenetrable to the casual listener...Even I can't really listen to them any more without being slightly annoyed by the constant slowing-down and speeding-up when keeping a fixed tempo wouldn't have done the songs any harm. Simplicity isn't necessarily a bad thing, and if that's what it takes for Biffy to achieve megastardom then I'm all for it.
As for the mediocre thing, that's your opinion which is fair enough. But if you compare Puzzle to anything by any of the generic Arctic Monkeys/Libertines-wannabe bands that have cropped up in the past few years, you'll surely have to concede it's definitely not average.This Message Edited On 06.04.07
I agree. Although I haven't heard all of this record yet from what I have heard I am incredibly glad they've gone down the "Matured Pop Songs" route rather than the inconsistent and sometimes annoying mess that was 'Infinity Land' there was a terrible threat of overblown pretentiousness exerted from some of the tracks off that album (with exception to probably only 'Jaggy Snake' and 'Kids from the Kibble', where as the more conventional songs are amongst their best yet (all three singles, 'wave upon wave' etc.)
I'm incredibly happy they've done away with the pointless experimentation; 'Got Wrong'; 'The Atrocity', in favour of just great music that can be returned to over and over again.
I think this record is going to restore my faith in music and Biffy Clyro themselves xoThis Message Edited On 06.05.07
i totally agree that 'The Atrocity' and 'Got Wrong' are poor songs. but they aren't really examples of the classic biffy experimentation, the majority of which isn't pointless.
'Wave Upon Wave...' and 'My Recovery Injection' are hardly conventional: more conventional than the likes of 'Jaggy Snake...' i agree but still on the experimental side of the fence. the conventional approach they have taken on Puzzle has shown that whilst they have the sheer imaginative capacity to make something new, when they try their hand at styles which people are more familiar with they come up short.
I've now finally given this a few listens, and I gave a positive add because I really like your style.
There is a couple things I don't agree with though;
Biffy have ALWAYS had Arena-Ready choruses, thats partly what makes them an amazing live band, they were just more subtle-y presented before.
Who's Got a Match is just awful =P It picks up a little towards the end but its a terrible effort and is totally needless.
and finally (a little petty but nevermind), although I agree about the utter rubbish that gets bafflingly overhyped now a days (thanks NME) you made bad by naming Bloc Party. I know they're stupidly hyped and although I don't think they're as good as Biffy, they have written some incredible music and I think have an amazing grasp at summarizing British culture as it currently stands. 'This Modern Love' is still one of the most beautiful, touching songs I've ever heard.
I feel like this time round the songwriting is more focused and polished - the production is considerably better, too. It actually feels like an album though; it concludes in an exciting way, and the puzzle tracks (2/15ths etc) are cleverly made.
I love the other Biffy albums, especially Infinity, but I really feel that Biffy needed to do this. And that's to finally create a really big album that justifies them as a band.
Of course I love their experimental side, but I feel the saying 'less is more' couldn't be any more fitting here.
You have a great reviewing style i feel. i enjoy your use of unusual adjectives and synonyms.
Great album too. Saw these guys at Reading a long time ago when Metallica were headlining. Well i think they played, it was a long time ago. Didnt really get into it, but thats cos i was tired and miles from the stage.
Fave songs for me Love has a Diameter, SS and LIAPBED