Review Summary: Regaining some joy of playing
For a brief period of time about fifteen years ago, Biffy Clyro were one of the most interesting bands in the world. A rather by the numbers emo act fertilised the against-the-grain moments of their debut's songs, blooming over the course of a wonderfully complex pair of subsequent records. And just as quickly as they emerged, they moved on. Not even a year had passed since Infinity Land when the band started courting major label attention by including accessible material into their setlists. Biffy's sheer level of craftsmanship easily ensured that they slid into the echelon of mainstream rock greats, with the subtle retained progressiveness being perfectly sufficient to set them apart from the pack, but they never reached the same 2003-2004 standard again. As records went on, the band inevitably wore out around the edges. Ellipsis was a moribund affair, a lifeless delivery of their most toothless material yet. Things were looking pretty dire.
It seems that at some point between then and now the band sat down and had a think about what made them tick musically. "Modern Love", a cover offered up for a David Bowie tribute, found Biffy reinvigorated and firing on all cylinders in a jagged track that could have sat somewhere along "Asexual Meat Kitchen" on a souped up Puzzle. The guys also chose to sign up for a close-knit indie movie collaboration, crafting this soundtrack as the script developed. "Balance, Not Symmetry" kicks off in a similar fashion to "Modern Love", with roaring guitars, hectic double-tracked vocals and wonky rhythm section interplay capped off by an arena chorus. Biffy throw a bone to their past while remaining acutely aware of their duties as a charting band. There are a few more indie day musical throwbacks scattered across the soundtrack, such as the monolithic harmonised vocals in the interlude of "Touch". The most notable is album highlight "Sunrise" with its insane intro that would even sound a bit out there on Vertigo of Bliss, but the soundtrack aspect forces them to spread out over various dynamic levels.
As such, the album's full of various acoustic and electronic tidbits which sometimes explode into a heavy riff further down the line ("Plead", "Fever Dream"), seemingly granting the director a palette of possible intensity depending on what ends up necessary. There's a heavy keyboard presence, and the melodies have the decency of being a bit more subdued to work in a movie setting. That's not to say that the stuff's boring - the band's in a rather playful mood, which is aided by the somewhat unpolished production job that lets them seemingly mess with the very fabric of the music they're offering up. The album thrives on all sorts of quirks and a dominant guitar tone that would likely get neutered in production of an actual focused record. I can't see the crushed "Colour Wheel" synths, nondescript "Jasabiab" strum hell or manic "Following Master" outro guitar squeals making it onto a major label Biffy production in their current form. Even "All Singing and All Dancing", an otherwise benign radio rock song, gets a weird speed-up interlude that gets decapitated out of nowhere, accomplishing what some weird sections in songs such as "Animal Style" or "Black Chandelier" wanted to be. The perfect manifestation of this weird artistic scatterbrain is "Tunnels and Trees" with its absolute lack of coherence. Piano cha-cha plus random sound stabs into earworm chorus, into a disjoint mini-interlude, into a somehow even more nonsensical outro. Jarring transitions, jumbled constituents, no reason for it to work, and yet it does.
Balance, Not Symmetry is ultimately a cool peek behind the curtain, showing a very talented band regaining some joy of playing that's been leaking out of their records for years. While everything is still quite entrenched in mainstream-minded melodicism, even the less adventurous songs on here ("Different Kind of Love", "Adored") manage to be earnest. Maybe the soundtrack nature is forcing the band's hand into wider sonic realms, maybe the raw production lets their quirks come out uninhibited. Whatever it is, it's working to some degree. The old Biffy will never return, the arena choruses are too deeply embedded in the guys' DNA by now. However, if they cultivate the spark they seem to have stumbled upon here and even things out a bit, this could lead to the most interesting major label incarnation of the band.