“If you’re in a rock band and you can’t make a double album then fuck off – do you know what I mean?”
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Biffy Clyro is a band with many faces. To some, they’re the blokes who wrote “Many Of Horror”—the song which was co-opted by an X Factor winner in 2011, and subsequently force-fed to British Christmas buyers via the shiny red hand of Simon Cowell. To others, they’re the proverbial rock festival headliners who sing in emotional Scottish accents and conceive songs destined for sold-out stadiums and Match of the Day montages.
But long before they embraced the saccharine spot where pop meets rock, they had a first life: as a weird, jittery prog and post-hardcore band, who shunned arena-ready theatrics for frantic drum patterns, blood-curdling vocals and distortion-soaked melodies. This life lasted for about three albums, meaning that their fans are largely divided into two main camps—pre-fourth album Puzzle, and post fourth album Puzzle—and like the sherbert-fuelled school discos of our formative years, rarely do the two meet in the middle.
So what camp do Biffy Clyro themselves identify with? After two decades and seven full-length albums, which records still cause a thin layer of mist to gather around their eyes? Are they happy soaking up the glorious, mountainous bravado of their recent efforts, or do they secretly long for the early 00s, when they could swagger into a small sweaty basement venue in Glasgow, and fuck shit up?
Ahead of their new record, Ellipsis, and new single in "Wolves of Winter", we sat down with Simon, James and Ben, and forced them to rank their own albums in order of preference. Unlike reluctant subjects of the past – like Bobby Gillespie who called us "fucking journalists" – they were strangely happy to comply, so here goes...
7. BLACKENED SKY (2002)
Hello lads. So, you want to start with your debut. Quite a regular occurence in this feature. What's so bad about it?
Simon: Well, these are songs I wrote when I was 16 or 17... [At the time] we were arrogant enough to think we could make the best album ever made, and we’re still pretty proud of it, but we listen back now and there’s things we would immediately change; there’s that real naivety in not knowing how to make things sounds good.
Ben: I didn’t even put new skins on my drum kit.
James: We smoked so much hash while we were making it. It’s all so slow.
Simon: There’s definitely a split in our fans. There’s ones who love the first three [Blackened Sky, Vertigo Of Bliss, Infinity Land], then a lot that found us after. Whatever album you discover a band on is the one you will always hold dearest, and we’ve definitely got some old school fans who’ve seen us playing to nobody. It means a lot to us that this album has managed to become a part of people’s lives and memories.
6. VERTIGO OF BLISS (2003)
Next up, is the next up chronologically. Are there a few regrets about the past?
Simon: We recorded all the music for Vertigo Of Bliss in a day. I think our johnsons were swinging at that time. We felt like a lot of people misunderstood Blackened Sky and we got some terrible reviews. Being naive boys from Scotland, we had thought the world was waiting for us, but it wasn’t.
We wanted to fuck with people. We wanted to make music that would make people feel uncomfortable; that was obtuse. We felt that anyone who penetrated the noise and the strange arrangements would truly understand our band, and I think that’s maybe why a lot of people that connected with us connected so strongly.
James: Luckily we were with [the indie label] Beggars Banquet who said, “We don't care if you’ve got singles or anything.” That was amazing for us, and I just don't think it would happen today. It immediately gave us a freedom. Back then, we used to ask for no days off on tour. One tour we did 29 shows in 28 days. That was the tour Simon ended up breaking his foot on the last day.
Simon: Fortunately, we weren’t partying properly: just drinking and smoking hash. We ate like shit though. I remember trying to heat a sausage roll on a Travelodge radiator. I was staring at it for like two hours, just touching it every now and again saying: “Not yet, son.”
5. INFINITY LAND (2004)
Now, this one seemed like a bit of a turning point for you guys. A bit darker, a bit more complex.
Ben: I think we found our sound on Infinity Land, and started singing in our accents.
Simon: Yeah, that was a big step for me. For the first two albums I wanted to sound like Kurt Cobain, then on Infinity Land I thought: “Why am I singing in an American accent?” It was also the start of me finding my voice as a lyricist. It's only during the last few years that I’ve started to consider myself a lyricist. [In the past] I’ve ignored people that have said I was any good, and just thought they were wrong. Now I’m spending longer on it, and thinking, “You’d better be good”.
When this album came out, people were mainly buying CDs – downloads had just started. We wanted the album to start and people to think they’d bought the wrong CD, so we had this 90 second dance groove. Then, after the last song, there’s 28 minutes of silence, then a horrific Scottish folk song drenched in feedback. That was a culmination of our obnoxious period, and it is a lot of people’s favourite album. We can’t thank the folk who came to the shows in that period enough, because we challenged them continually.
4. PUZZLE (2007)
Simon: I lost my mum between Infinity Land and Puzzle, and I started to take the music very seriously. I was away on tour when she died, and I thought that if this music is keeping me apart from her at that point then I’m going to make sure it’s worth my while; and that we’re going to fully commit. Lyrically, Puzzle is about loss and mortality. The music somehow became very real to me.
Ben: We had to calm down the music a bit because we didn’t want to shit all over the lyrics.
Simon: [At the time] we were all under a lot of pressure, and I was going through a tough time because of my mum passing away. We partied way too hard. We wanted to have fun, but we felt contained. It was a very oppressive time because every day we were singing these deep songs. We had a lot of arguments with Garth [Richardson] the producer because I felt like he wasn’t taking it seriously enough. I was like, “I don't care if we’re just another band to you, this is the most important thing we’ve ever done.”
James: We were meant to be there for six weeks, but we ended up staying for five months, and every few weeks we had to phone home and say, “We’re gonna be another three weeks.” So that effected our relationship with our women at home. But it taught us the art of patience in the studio.
3. ONLY REVOLUTIONS (2009)
I see a pattern forming here. We've essentially done every record in order. I guess this album is where things really started to heavily bother the charts.
Simon: This is where we busted out of just being a rock band. It’s probably our prettiest record and poppiest up until Ellipsis. I feel like we’d mastered the art of the prog with pop then; of making complex stuff sound simple.
Ben: “Mountains” has the weirdest count I think we’ve had. It’s got a 15/16 rhythm, but it’s probably our most popular song. I have no idea how people dance to it.
Simon: The album is named after a Mark Z Danielewski novel, and in the novel he had half the page as one character, half the page as another, and you have to turn the book every eight pages. It’s a really intense experience, and I read that just after I got married. Only Revolutions is very much a love record.
There was also The X Factor thing at that point [Matt Cardle recorded “Many Of Horror” as his first single after winning the show], which looking back, I’m really happy about. It actually installed a lot more confidence in me as a songwriter. At the time we thought “We so shouldn’t do this. This is wrong. We hate The X Factor.” But there’s a kind of poetry to it. It helped us continue our journey.
James: If the evil pop machine wants your songs, you must be doing something alright.
2. OPPOSITES (2013)
Simon: Opposites was entirely about fulfilling our dream of making a double album. We really wanted to embrace the ridiculous on that album. We had orchestration on Puzzle, but it was a very dramatic and serious album. Only Revolutions is a bit more shiny and fun. On Opposites, if we could think of something we got it: there were tap dancers, mariachi bands, bagpipes. I remember we went to biggest church in Pasadena and I’m sitting there in my [Norwegian heavy metal band] Darkthrone t-shirt playing their huge fucking organ, when the vicar walked in he took one look at me and was like, “Who’s this?” We also had our first drama as a band at the time, with Ben giving up the drink just before we started recording.
Ben: I’d never tried to stop drinking before. It had never occurred to me – I'm a Scotsman! It was always just, “Oh I’ll cut down.” But I just gave up, and my head was clearer within a couple of days. LA was the perfect place to be for that. I just wanted to smash the drums. Everyone said I started playing better. I think I took it as a challenge: “I won’t fucking drink: now see how well I can hit the drums.”
Simon: It was the first drama we had, lifestyle-wise, and the first time we had to address things between us as friends, as brothers. I remember the joy of completing the album more than anything. It took twice as much effort, but it was a dream we’d always had. If you’re in a rock band and you can’t make a double album then fuck off – do you know what I mean? But it was such hard work. It took six months to write and six months to record, but it was only when we started touring that I crumpled up in the airport one day. I just couldn't do anything. That’s why we’re never doing another fucking double album.
1. ELLIPSIS (2016)
Finally Ellipsis – your forthcoming new album and first in three years. I heard it before I arrived. It’s crammed: pop, rock, funk, balladry and even some twee indie. It’s a storm, basically. But every band is always going to say their newest is their best. So, why exactly is it the best thing you've ever made?
Simon: I do genuinely believe we've got better on every single album, and we’re trying to embrace influences we would have shunned previously. The most exciting music coming out now is pop. The new Beyonce album is as edgy as anything out there, as is a lot of the hip-hop records. Rock music has entered this safe, nostalgic zone. Rich Costey produced this record, and Rich isn’t really a rock music fan, so we were listening to a lot of Aesop Rock as well as Kanye'sYeezus.
I didn't expect you to say Yeezus.
I think Yeezus was an absolute change for everyone. Mainstream music has not been the same since it came out. Why is Yeezus dropping with more punk attitude, breaking the rules and ignoring the mainstream more than any rock music out there? I feel like rock music in the last decade has stopped evolving.
Don’t get me wrong: I don't think we’ll ever make a hip-hop record, but we’ve always followed where we are at that time. This is the most modern version of our band. It feels like this is the first album we’ve made for today. Previously, we’ve been trying to make ones that stand up with the classics, but this one was more, “Let’s use everything in the studio that we can get our hands on,” rather that worrying about how it will be live. This is definitely “Biffy: the studio years.”
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Biffy Clyro's Ellipsis drops on July 8th. You can preview their new single "Animal Style" right here.