Tue, Feb 19, 2013 - Page 12 News List

CD reviews

II, by Unknown Mortal Orchestra; Opposites, by Biffy Clyro

By Kitty Empire and Alexis Petridis  /  The Guardian, London

You could be forgiven for feeling a certain sinking of the spirits at all this. Biffy Clyro’s rise to fame is a heartwarming and idiosyncratic one: from their origins in the world of proggy post-hardcore — songs filled with twisting guitar riffs, shifting time signatures and episodic structures called things like Toys Toys Toys Choke Toys Toys Toys — to platinum albums and enormodome gigs, unaided by hype or fashion, instead via the old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes method of tireless gigging. And yet here they are, apparently falling for one of the great cliches: the double concept album on which hugely successful rock stars explain at length how awful it is being hugely successful rock stars.

And yet, as these things go, Opposites is remarkably unassuming, even restrained. Their eyes clearly on the prize of turning their UK success global, Biffy Clyro stick pretty close to the formula they’ve minted over their last couple of albums. You can see why. For one thing, it pulled off a tough trick in transposing their proggy post-hardcore origins on to radio-friendly stadium rock. For another, at its best, the formula works to striking effect. Most stadium rock deals in musical and emotional brushstrokes broad enough that you can still make them out from the cheap seats, but Biffy Clyro’s version feels more complex, troubled and intriguing. The angular guitar lines on Sounds Like Balloons and Little Hospitals seem nervous and fretful. They rub against the soaring melodies, as do the stop-start dynamics, which fit with the tormented lyrical bent. Something about Neil’s words rings true, in marked contrast to the kind of generalities that usually pass for lyrics in the world of stadium rock. He has a way of hitting you with a plaintive, prosaic line — “you need to be with somebody else”, “that’s not as glam as you think it sounds” — at just the right moment. Even if you have an aversion to rock stars telling you their woes, there’s something believable about the album’s emotional arc and its dogged conclusion: “We’ve got to stick together.”

You’re left thinking that if you’re going to have stadium rock, it might as well be as thought-provoking and chewy as this. If there’s a problem with Opposites, it’s not one of quality, so much as profusion: the impact of Biffy Clyro’s sound is gradually dulled by just how much of it there is here. Ironically, given the double album’s grim reputation as a byword for self-indulgence, you find yourself wishing they’d thrown caution to the wind a bit more often — because when they do, the results are really impressive. Two synth-heavy collaborations with Pop Will Eat Itself frontman turned respected film composer Clint Mansell are great, as is the mariachi-assisted Spanish Radio: the former unsettling, filled with distorted electronics, the latter bringing an unlikely echo of Forever Changes-era Love to proceedings.

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