Review Summary: A step in all the directions.
Three years after the fact, Only Revolutions remains one of the most calculated and cringe-worthy records ever conceived. Every now and then, I give it a go – time flows, tastes change, and maybe I’ll finally be able to see what others find so great about that album… nope. Not really. There’s something false in each of the painstakingly crafted singles, pandering for your attention like a hungry cat forcefully scraping against your shins. The best song on there was a carbon copy of the lazy last-day-in-the-studio acoustic closer from Puzzle, sprinkled with some orchestration to try and shrug off the similarity. The second best song on there is complete filler, and the only song with no single ambitions. The worst song from the record became their biggest hit yet after it crossed paths with The X Factor.
Obviously, you don’t get off the ride when you just scored your biggest hit yet. Biffy sure as heck took their time with the follow-up, touring Only Revolutions for ages. But then, some new songs started making their way into concert set lists… and they were surprisingly good. It seemed that Biffy finally caught their stride, and managed to carve out a very satisfying niche of their own in the land of mainstream rock. The tunes were simultaneously very accessible and musically rewarding, featuring hooks that worked and the occasional quirk that didn’t feel forced. And then, the two pre-record singles rolled in, and Only Revolutions’ songs suddenly appeared to be well thought-out, intelligent tunes. Opposites started looking like one heck of a bumpy ride before it was even released.
So, how bumpy is it? The funny thing is that the unevenness of the record was pretty much defined before it hit the shelves, as the singles and early set list additions define the two quality extremes of Opposites. On one hand, the two singles are some of the most horrible tunes in the Biffy Clyro catalogue to date. “Stinging Belle” features a feeble intro rolling into a tepid verse/chorus not too far removed from the dud known as “The Captain”, before whatever direction the song may have had gets thrown out the window with a choked tritone leading into two minutes of lifeless instrumental action taken from another musical realm altogether. Three jarringly unfitting musical parts wedged together into the first recording released from the album, real smooth. “Black Chandelier” is no better, as its formulaic, mushy body complete with formulaic, mushy “superstar” arena chorus gives way to a sterilized faux-heavy bridge sounding like a dumbed-down version of the intro to “The Kids from Kibble and the Fist of Light”. In the end, not only are the tunes bad, but they don’t even accomplish the goal they set out to achieve – there’s a reason why all the slick, processed music of the world doesn’t come with lifeless chugging riffs and two-minute bagpipe outros. The other member of this song family, “Biblical”, manages to avoid the pitfalls of the first two singles, and will probably fare even better. As such, the most Kings of Leon’ish Biffy song to date is a safe bet for this record’s “Many of Horror” in terms of recognition. Sure, it’s plastic and pointless, but it’s going to get the crowd roaring live and effortlessly garner tons of airplay. Expecting it as a single sooner than later.
The other end of the quality spectrum is a huge surprise, something I did not see coming – sturdy, focused songs that challenge “Living Is a Problem Because Everything Dies” for the slot of best big-label Biffy track. Picking a leader of the pack is hard, each of the songs excels in a different area and they’d make for a fearsome threesome of singles. “Sounds Like Balloons” is probably the most Biffy’ish of the bunch with its jagged verse riff and opaque lyrics, and their juxtaposition with the monolithic chorus works despite all odds. Incorporating both of the disc names in the lyrics is a nice touch that makes the song feel special in the context of the album. “The Joke’s On Us” is the most straightforward of the bunch, but the pure quality of the content coupled with the nifty arrangement solutions create a certain mood that creeps under the skin and doesn’t let up. “Victory Over the Sun” is the friendliest, the foreseeable energy build-up serves each part really well as the laid back, apreggiated verse gets linked to the anthemic smasher of a chorus with the dotted, bouncy transition. The fact that this is easily the most overproduced piece of recording on the double album suggests that this is going to be dropped as a single at some point… it’s beyond me why most likely only one of the three genuinely good songs on here will be dignified with it, but it’s still better than nothing.
In between the six tracks defining the quality bounds for the record, there are 14 tunes stuffing up the cracks. Some of the crack stuffers work, some don’t – “Opposite” is the proper heir to “Many of Horror”, and manages to remain just as pedestrian. The only thing keeping it from hitting rock bottom is the homogeneity of its approach (yes, a rolling wannabe-old-Biffy section would not have served this tune any good) and the occasional pleasant chord shape. “Pocket” was lovely during a one-off acoustic rendition just around the time Puzzle dropped, but the arrangement presented on the record butchers it completely. On the other hand, “Skylight” (the other ancient, stashed away song) features a lush, melancholic keyboard atmosphere, whilst “The Thaw” manages to approach a horribly cheesy ending ballad template and walk away without losing too many teeth in the process. Even the more characteristic songs of the lot don’t manage to shake the feeling of filler, what makes for a surprisingly welcome change when compared to Only Revolutions’ pushiness. Worse means better, somehow. The bulk of the record is inoffensive, mildly boring drivel that occasionally experiments with whatever the band had lying around. Sometimes it works (the oddball time signatures of “A Girl and His Cat”), sometimes it doesn’t (the fiasco known as “Spanish Radio” that fanfares its own demise in a way), sometimes it’s barely noticeable (the kazoo tucked into the time machine with “Little Hospitals” and sending it 10 years back). Trim most of the fat and you get the tighter single-disc version that loses the theme split of the songs in favour of less musical dilution.
It’s not just the lyrical theme that’s responsible for the “opposite” nature of Opposites. The record lives up to its title in a different realm altogether – it’s simultaneously a step in the right and wrong direction for the band while keeping their footing intact. Yes, all three of them. Right because there are three damn good tracks on here, and bits and nibbles here and there (“Modern Magic Formula” with its possessed outro effortlessly accomplishing what the ending to “That Golden Rule” wanted to be) are quite tasty as well. That alone makes it a smashing success in my mind, especially when compared to its predecessor. Wrong because the first two dismal singles are even worse than the ones that came before them due to their off-the-wall structuring (to quote one of the duds, they’ve “clearly lost their way”) and don’t even manage to fully live up to what they should be doing for the band. The footing remains intact because “Biblical” will work just fine and dandy as a proper single, and the band’s rising stardom will be further cemented in the end. Hey, if they want it, let them have it. I just hope they keep dropping stuff like “Sounds Like Balloons” or “The Joke’s On Us” on future records, and I’ll be about as happy as I can be given the conditions.