CD reviews

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

By Kitty Empire and Alexis Petridis  /  The Guardian, London

Tue, Feb 19, 2013 - Page 12

II

Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Jagjaguwar

Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson has a tattoo of an eye on his neck — specifically, on his throat chakra, said to rule communication. Somewhat surprisingly, the 32-year-old New Zealand-born, Oregon-dwelling musician claimed to music Web site Pitchfork recently that he is not a hippy. This, despite his wife and two children having lived in a midwife’s yurt for a time, and despite Nielson having the kind of freewheeling attitude to life management that saw him sign a record deal on a napkin in a bar. “I eat fried chicken on the road,” he avows.

Like fellow Antipodeans Tame Impala, and like fellow west coasters Ariel Pink and Ty Segall (plus forthcoming tourmates Foxygen), Nielson is, undoubtedly, a time-lagged child of the psychedelic era. His past in a punk band (New Zealand’s Mint Chicks) irrupts only occasionally into Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s gently lysergic pop songs — songs that seem to just get better and better, refracting both the Beatles and Led Zeppelin along with gnarlier psych fare.

Neilson’s debut, 2011’s Unknown Mortal Orchestra, was dazed, raw and melodic, earning it a great many plaudits. That bedroom recording came to renown in a very 21st-century way, however. Neilson — then working a nine to five — posted an anonymous song online in 2010, only to have Ffunny Ffrends blow up in the blogosphere, a heady sequence of events which led to that napkin in that bar.

By contrast, II (released on a new label) was constructed in snatches on phones while Neilson, having assembled a band, played its predecessor around the world in the elevated company of bands such as Grizzly Bear. II begins blithely but ominously. “Isolation/ It can put a gun in your hand,” chorus a number of Nielsons, multitracked into a kind of queasy harmony on From the Sun. The scritching acoustic guitar is intimate and the melody quite beatific, but Neilson isn’t toting a flowers-in-the-hair version of the 60s ideal. Rather, he is homesick and lonely and partying a little more than is necessary: “I’m so tired/ But I can never lay down my head,” he rues.

Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark), the album’s first single, also conjoins sleep, prettiness and unease. A blissed-out plea for a state of suspended animation that’s not far off death, the single’s cover art features the bloodied face of a baby (presumably Nielson’s youngest).

— By Kitty Empire

The Guardian, London

Opposites

Biffy Clyro

14th Floor

Biffy Clyro’s new album arrives bearing all the hallmarks of A Very Important Artistic Statement. It’s not merely that Opposites is a double album, the longstanding signifier of grand ambitions and creativity so torrential that one disc alone cannot contain its bounty: you could actually fit the material here on one CD, but they’ve split it over two, the better to declare its place in the grand lineage of Tommy, Physical Graffiti, The Wall and Apollo 440’s Dude Descending a Staircase. It is, furthermore, a conceptual double album, with each of its discs bearing a separate title. The Sand at the Core of Our Bones addresses the issues that beset the band in the wake of their success (drummer Ben Johnson struggled with a drink problem, while in a recent Interview with UK-based rock music magazine Kerrang! frontman Simon Neil discussed his depression so frankly that the magazine felt obliged to print a Samaritans contact number for a charity helping the suicidal at the end of the piece), while The Land at the End of Our Toes apparently deals with their the positivity towards the future. On top of all that, it comes in a sleeve designed by good old Storm Thorgerson — he of Pink Floyd’s pig flying over Battersea power station, in south London — for 45 years the go-to guy for rock bands desiring album sleeves loaded with deep meaning and mysterious portent.

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.

— By Alexis Petridis

The Guardian, London