Biffy Clyro are a favourite band of mine, top five for my life so far. Since being sent a few songs from a friend living in Scotland as Puzzle came out way back in 2007 I’ve been hooked.
Ellipsis is Biffy Clyro’s seventh studio album and had the near impossible task of following the monstrous double album “Opposites”.
Opposites is a double album where there are gems throughout, at least seven of the tracks from it have become live show staples and should remain so for years. Opposites is an album so good, written in a period where Simon Neil was so prolific that despite being a double album, another album of B-sides – Similarities – was released.
Similarities is also a strong album considering it’s 16 B-sides to a double album. Have a listen to Thundermonster or Fingerhut from Similarities, they don’t have the polish or the same lyrical weight that the “proper” studio albums have but the songwriting is undeniably strong.
Go on, have a listen. You tell me if that’s not a damn good B-side.
Ellipsis album marks the start of the post-GGGarth (producer Garth Richardson) era of the band. The GGGarth era of maximum bigness covered Puzzles, Only Revolutions and Opposites. Each album taking the band and their sound to the next level, and Biffy Clyro from a silver album selling band to a festival headliner and 2x platinum selling band.
The band have stated that Opposites was peak production, the songwriting, recording and production were all developed to be stadium anthems pushed to their extreme.
“I don’t think we could make anything as epic or as cinematic as the last three records,” (Simon Neil – http://diymag.com/2015/12/27/biffy-clyro-in-the-studio-interview-2015-new-album)
There are parallels here with U2 at the end of the Joshua Tree/Rattle and Hum era where Bono stated “we’re going to go away and dream it all up again”.
Two bands from the British Isles performing at peak largess, finding themselves with no clear path forward. How do you make something bigger than a 10? How do you you refine something which has already been refined without it becoming a clone?
You evolve. You “dream it all up again”.
U2 went on to dream up “Achtung Baby” which cemented them as a powerhouse for the next decade. U2 stripped their sound down and rebuilt. They introduced electronic elements to their sound and focused on what makes them brilliant – their songwriting.
The paralels between Biffy Clyro and U2 in this regard are clear, strip away all of the production, the bells and whistles and listen – it’s the power of the songwriting that makes them brilliant.
Luckily for the world Biffy Clyro are fond of doing a stripped back acoustic set quite regularly so lots of footage exists of their catalogue performed acoustically.
Now, back to Ellipsis.
The first taste of Ellipsis. Wolves of Winter came out as the first single, accompanied by a music video featuring a geometric wolf and T-Rex. What more do you want people?!
Wolves of Winter is a statement, intentional or not of the band moving forward. It features the Biffy trademarks; irregular time signatures, machine gun-esque snare drum fills, the vocal harmonies that in my opinion are the core of Biffy’s sound. Go through their back catalogue and listen to the elements. Take those elements, the essence of Biffy Clyro’s sound and meld them together with a more rhythmic approach to writing.
You get Ellipsis.
It introduces new elements to Biffy’s sound – drum machines, low-fi velcro sounding guitar sounds, a few more guitar solos and falsetto singing. Some of these elements have seeped through from Simon Neil’s other projects Marmaduke Duke and ZZC.
They have always been a band of experimentation. Each album features a few songs that stray from the rock norms; Diary of Always from The Vertigo of Bliss featuring acapella vocals providing the rhythm to drive the song forward, 2/15ths, 4/15ths and 9/15ths from Puzzle is a song broken up across the album.
Friends of Enemies is a song that feels the most removed from Biffy’s back catalogue. That said, it is fantastic. It’s a song that the moshers will probably hate, but it caught my ear on first listen and shows off Simon Neil’s songwriting chops.
I’d love to hear the early demos of this song, I’d be very surprised if it started anywhere near how it sounds on the album. Listen to this song in particular at high volumes, the guitar tone in the chorus playing off the drums is beautiful. This song should be a single, it has potential to open Biffy Clyro up to an even larger audience.
Animal Style feels like a classic Biffy rock song. It’s built on the back of a rollicking guitar riff. The beat and riff are incredibly dancey and it will no doubt be a live favourite with the big half time chorus.
Re-arrange is a song built on Simon Neil’s voice and sounds like it grew from a drum machine experiment. This song feels destined to end up being heard in my work office on the radio, it’s mellow radio-friendly beautiful songwriting. I would say from a pure songwriting perspective, Re-arrange is one of Biffy’s best songs. Expect this one to be performed in their acoustic sets for a long time.
Up next, Herex. One of the less polished songs on the album, the fantastic chorus is propped up by some quirky and relatively uneventful verses. Being sandwiched between two of the better songs in Biffy’s catalogue works against Herex. Some will love it, to me it feels like filler on the album. Some necessary distortion to break up two soft delicate songs.
Medicine. An acoustic track that starts reminiscent of Machines from Puzzle. Acoustic with accoutrements. It is an exercise in restraint and is executed beautifully. As with Re-arrage Simon Neil’s vocal performance carries this track. Medicine feels like the inverse of Machines, the light to the dark. Medicine also demonstrates how much more comfortable Simon Neil sounds with his own voice compared to on Puzzles. Compare the two and the difference is notable.
Flammable, like Herex before it brings the audience back into the rock mindset. You can hear it in the first note of the guitar, a heavy thwang of autowah and synthesizer. Flammable builds towards an anthemic chorus, it feels like it was written to be performed live to get the audience singing. It’s the right mix of speed, repetition and a dance-able beat to be a live favourite. The heavily effected guitar tone coming through at the end for a lead break is a nice piece of punctuation at the end of a short sharp song.
On a Bang. This song has a bit more of the angry punk attitude that sometimes sneaks into Biffy’s music. The shortest track on the album doesn’t overstay it’s welcome and channels some of the more dissonant songs in the back catalogue such as 9/15ths and parts of Infinity Land. It’s also as close to the older style screaming songs from the first three albums that you’re likely to hear these days. Despite being one of the most dissonant song on the album it is still rich with melodies and some of the trademark Biffy Clyro quirk – with unexpected breaks in the music for some “woos” and “ooohs”. It is the antithesis of what comes next.
Small Wishes is probably as close to country as three men from Ayrshire, Scotland can be. Tongue feels firmly in cheek with this song, some wolf howls, toy piano with a honky-tonk feel though. I’m hopeful that one day this song be performed acoustically without some of the quirk to really see how good the song is. Just when the song starts to feel like it’s getting a little more serious the whistling section starts. As far as the album flow goes Small Wishes comes through like a jokey B-side that the band sneaked it’s way on to the album.
Howl is a song driven by the guitar strumming and lively beat. It felt foreign for a Biffy Clyro song yet somehow evocative of something familiar. When Biffy released videos discussing from the album and they said they were channeling their inner Midnight Oil, instantly the connection was made. The drums are roomy, the guitar more rhythmic than melodic and big gang vocals are all elements of Midnight Oil’s signature sound, yet here Biffy have channeled them and made them feel like it’s been part of the Biffy DNA from the start.
People is another example of beautiful melodic songwriting. Restraint again plays a key part in why this song works, the song never exceeds what it needs to be to allow the vocals to shine. It’s a bit of a sleeper, on each listen it reveals a new delight. As a closer it is a great bookend for a rather fragmented album.
Ellipsis features some fantastic songs and is a strong indicator that Biffy Clyro can survive in the post GGGarth era of maximum bigness. Aside from a few weaker tracks on the album, Biffy Clyro can be proud that some of their best ever songs can be found on this album. Some fans might feel alienated and say that it hasn’t got the chaotic stadium fillers or “heavy” songs like That Golden Rule, or Sounds Like Balloons. I get that. They are among my favourite Biffy songs but you can’t begrudge a band for trying something different after exploring as far down the GGGarth path that they could in the nine years since Puzzle came out.
I specifically waited a few months to review this album, as one of my favourite bands I didn’t want to give an unconsidered view. When I first heard Wolves of Winter, or even Animal Style I wasn’t sold. In fact, I thought they were mediocre songs, but through a few more listens they grew slowly.
Once the album dropped and I heard Friends of Enemies for the first time I knew it would all be fine. It’s a great song, then after hearing Medicine and Re-arrange I was left with a warm fuzzy feeling. Biffy Clyro can still write fantastic songs, which on Ellipsis with a few exceptions, they have.