Why Biffy Clyro Are at the Height of Their Powers: Ellipsis review (2016).
by Michael Cameron.
The first thing that springs to mind with this album is the fact that once again, as they have numerous times before, Biffy have changed the sound of the music they make in a big way. This time with Ellipsis there is a heavier, darker tone to the record. At the same time a fresher, more modern sounding production technique is employed with the help of industry master Rich Costey. With this change of hands from long-time producer and collaborator Garth Brooks, a statement of intent had already been made before a single track was laid down.
There were warnings from the band about a change in direction in the documentary of the making of Opposites, their 2013 studio album. Drummer Ben Johnson said, “I’m beginning to think that this is so epic that we’re going to have to re-think our next album entirely. We can’t go down this route any further than we have done.” An idea that was echoed by his fellow band mates in the documentary, which can be found on the deluxe iTunes version of the album.
One double-edged sword that a band with a fan base as profound as Biffy have to negotiate, is contending with backlash over any change of sound. There have been accusations, not for the first time, that Biffy have “sold out” on this record. However if you were a fan of the old Biff, specifically pre-Puzzle, then you would already have taken issue with Simon Neil allowing his hit single ‘Many of Horror’ from the 2008 release Only Revolutions to be used by the X-Factor for Matt Cardle. So if that isn’t selling out, then nothing is, and the predictable “Biff are a sell-out crowd” should crawl back into 2005 in the huff and stay there. If you are in need of any further re-assurance, Simon Neil spoke in the making of Opposites, saying “I would hate to write a song that didn’t connect with me, but that ended up becoming a huge song… that’s not what Biffy Clyro’s about, that’s not what we’re about… If one person connects with what you’re singing and it matters to them then that is enough.”
Throughout the album, there is a deeply personal feel to Neil’s lyrics. The vast majority of the songs are aimed at someone, giving them a realism and the feeling that he really means what he’s saying, especially considering the issues that are being tackled. Neil appeals to a close friend or family member who is perhaps entering into a hasty marriage in ‘Herex.’ He asks, “how can you think that you’ve figured this out?” before imploring to the subject of his lyrics that, “real love is much better than this.” At the other end of the scale, ‘Wolves of Winter’ is a triumphant celebration of what the band have achieved so far, “No I in Team.” Friends and Enemies has a self-explanatory title, especially with lines like, “You were not right, you were just righteous,” and, “With friends as good as you who needs enemies.” Notably in the latter two songs and permeating throughout the whole album there is an almost nu-metal sounding guitar that crunches and growls at the listener, a sound cultivated by Neil’s famous collection of Stratocasters and an impressive rig to make any guitar tech salivate. This is a reminder that this is still a rock record from a powerful rock trio. The drums, whilst unmistakably in the style of Ben Johnston, are more simplified than other albums, but they lend themselves perfectly to the songs which is as much as any drummer and any rock record can hope for. As for his brother James’ bass parts, once again they perfectly underpin the entire sound, providing the spine of the music whilst making tasteful melodic flourishes when required such as in ‘Flammable,’ ‘Friends and Enemies,’ and ‘Don’t Won’t Can’t’.
A strong addition to the Biffy sound are the bright and grabbing melodies usually played on synthesisers and computer programs alike that rise from the mix to dazzle the ears before submerging into the backdrop. This new electronic feel is a sparkling addition, never overpowering, and fills out the gaps for the listener in this colourful, if occasionally darker tone that emanates from Ellipsis.
The added electronic sound to the album was perhaps championed by producer Costey, who incidentally had a hand in mixing Chvrches’ debut album The Bones of What You Believe (2013), an album which left global reverberations and has led to a huge success for the Scottish trio. This electro, synth-driven sound coincides with the general 80s revival that has swept across pop culture in the past few years. A notable example would be the soundtrack to Netflix original series Stranger Things. This has translated into popularity for some newer bands in the Scottish music scene, particularly as recently as the Tenement Trail in Glasgow on Saturday 8th October 2016 which featured the likes of The Vegan Leather, SHVLLOWS, and The Ninth Wave. All of which have interpreted this wave in different ways, and all have collected praise from, “one of Scotland’s leading exponents of new music,” Jim Gellatly, who incidentally has been credited as one of the first to give Biffy Clyro considerable airtime in their earlier days. The Ninth Wave have just recently picked up the award for ‘Best Newcomer’ from the 2016 SAMAs (Scottish Alternative Music Awards) in Glasgow.
There is plenty to listen out for in this record, from the fragile falsetto in ‘Re-arrange,’ to the absolute power of ‘Animal Style’, ‘Howl’, and ‘In the Name of the Wee Man’. The latter three songs represent a crucial part of what makes Biffy Clyro who they are today. They are a festival headlining band, born to own the mainstage at T in the Park and countless others across the UK and Europe. ‘Animal Style’ in particular is a statement that says – We want to write big tunes for big places and blow away our audiences as we always have done. This is a band that refuses to slow down and rest on its laurels.
If there is a weakness in this album, it lies with the song ‘Small Wishes.’ The song has a country vibe to it, something which is incongruous to the other songs on the record and is reminiscent of a mash up between John Mayer’s Paradise Valley and The Fratellis’ Eyes Wide Tongue Tied. Both of which happen to be personal favourites of the author, but it remains the only song on the record which might have been better served as a B side.
Ellipsis is an interesting departure from what came before. The initial single and track one of Ellipsis, ‘Wolves of Winter,’ is a bold choice and it still enjoys circulation on endless Spotify playlists as well as some prime airplay on the radio to generally positive acclaim. Although, the release managed to peak at number one in the UK; 15th in Australia and 11th in the US album charts respectively, which suggests a mixed reception internationally. That being said, the band have demonstrated a refreshing apathy towards world domination whilst achieving exceptionally high record sales and fan bases around the globe which have and will continue to readily ingest this new sound from three old hands at making brilliant music.