Ten Years On: Discovering Biffy Clyro’s breakthrough album Puzzle

Biffy Clyro Puzzle Cover Art
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Ten Years On: Biffy Clyro – Puzzle

Isolated on the other end of the planet

The internet existed ten years ago, but it was a completely different animal.  My family still had a dial-up connection, so good luck trying to load a video. Not that there were many music videos on YouTube anyway. A few of my slightly older mates tell me about how they left the computer running all night just trying to load a new four-minute Blink 182 video when it was released.

Can you remember the ghastly screeching sound that the computer made when making a connection on dial-up? I can certainly remember my dad shouting at me to disconnect when he wanted to make a phone call. And to think that today we use our phones to connect to the internet!

Biffy Clyro Luke Gilford

Biffy Clyro. Image: Luke Gilford

Youtube was a fledgling, Spotify and other such streaming sites were the speculative talk of some sci-fi future. Facebook existed, but didn’t become popular within my peer group until around 2009. We were all on Bebo [remember that???], with some of the more alty scene kids also having a Myspace account. Nobody really bothered with Facebook messenger anyway, because everyone used MSN.

Which gives you some rough context to why I was my best friend’s house trying to listen to a song called “Living Is A Problem Because Everything Dies” using a program called Limewire. I’d read about this Scottish band called Biffy Clyro who had just released an album called Puzzle. They were on the front cover of Rock Sound magazine and they sounded interesting, so I was trying to find some of their music to listen to.

Like I said, my family had a dial-up connection, so no point trying to find anything online at home. Streaming sites didn’t exist and sites like Youtube offered little music content. The record stores in my small hometown of Nelson weren’t going to import music by an unheard of [ha!] band like Biffy Clyro unless I was willing to shell out at least $40 – almost as much as I earned in a week working part-time at a supermarket. So I decided to use Tom’s computer to try to listen to this band.

Limewire was notoriously bad for containing poor quality content. Viruses were abundant and most tracks were mislabeled and poorly spelled. So when I started listening to this song that I’d tried to download – “Living Is A Problem…” – it was of little surprise that the track sounded corrupted. I listened to the jarring, stabbing sounds at random intervals for about a minute before I stopped listening and gave up. There’s no way that this file was the single I had read about!

[This video clip cuts roughly 90 seconds off the album version of the song]

Hearing more material

It was a few months later that I bought a Kerrang! Magazine which featured a best of 2007 sampler. That CD featured a Biffy song called “A Whole Child Ago”.  It had a crazy riff that sounded like a polyphonic ringtone [yes, this was 2007 remember!], weird drumming that had a looping pattern [or did it?] and nonsensical lyrics. And I loved it!

This track – along with “Get Fucked Stud”, from the Rock Sound sampler that I’d got when I first read about Biffy – made me want to track down this elusive Puzzle album again.

Tom pulled through for me. A true best friend, he had heard me go on and on about wanting to listen to that album so somehow managed to buy a copy of Puzzle on CD for my birthday.

I remember being so excited. I finally had it! I put it into my crappy discman that was hooked up to criminally bad speakers [so tinny they should have come with a gram of bud!] and sat down to listen to the album. It had a bright orange sticker on the cover with a quote from NME: “This album will change your life!” Yeah… right… I doubted the claim, but still had high expectations.

The first track was “Living Is A Problem…”. Wait… What the hell? The same stabbing sounds for almost two minutes! So that file from Limewire wasn’t corrupted? And this was a single???

Upon closer listen, I figured that the song showcased some incredible musicianship. Certainly not easy to listen to, but bloody impressive that the three musicians could play something with such odd timing and play as a tight unit. The song got really aggressive, but oddly enough had choral sections and string arrangements juxtaposed again the heavy rocking.

Listening through the rest of the album was an interesting ride. It was weird, that’s for sure. Clearly they were on drugs when they came up with most of the lyrics. And there are so many quirky elements and odd time signatures, which were actually tame compared to their previous three albums – not that I knew it at the time.

I think it is impossible to listen to the infuriatingly catchy “Who’s Got A Match?” and stay still. The triplet groove compels the listener to nod their head, tap their foot… something!

In fact, Biffy may well lay claim to my first exposure to math elements in rock. It’s either them or Tool. They took my listening experiences beyond the standard 4/4 or 6/8 time signatures that most songs we listen to are written in. “Now I’m Everyone” contains a 5/4 passage that used to annoy me so much, but I now love it.

I wasn’t sure what to make of the lyrics for most of this album. Plenty are simply nonsense. However, there is a coherent theme of mourning throughout. Simon’s mother had passed away shortly before the album was written, and glimpses into his grieving can be found throughout. I couldn’t tell you why a man is on the corner selling dozens of bones, but when Simon cries “Eleanor, I would do anything for another minute with you” the message to his late mother is clear.

And, just like that, I became a Biffy Clyro fanatic. I started trying to push it on all my mates, spreading the good word of the Biff. It became a bit of a running joke among my mates – “yeah, yeah, Joseph. We know – another weird rock band. Stop going on about it would ya?” Took a photo of the Puzzle album cover with my phone to use as the phone wallpaper, but after a while switched it for something else after a few too many people had asked me why I had the photo of a naked man on my phone.

I did manage to convert a few mates. I was in a band with my best friend Tom [who had gifted me the CD] and another friend Harry, and we chose to add “A Whole Child Ago” to our repertoire, alongside other obligatory teenage covers band numbers: Nirvana, Muse, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, System Of A Down, Incubus, Rage Against The Machine etc… I actually sat down to try to drum along to the track a few days ago and realised that I never did figure out how to play it properly, and just managed to come up with something similar that seemed to work. It’s a tricky linear beat that swaps between the hi-hat, snare and kick, and changes ever so slightly every few bars. I think I was more suited to playing something more simple and aggressive like Nirvana’s “Breed”.

It’s crazy that no-one had heard of Biffy in New Zealand. At the time, the band was busy headlining major festivals and touring with the biggest rock bands over in the UK. I guess that shows how important radio play was for entering the public consciousness, back in the days before music was so easy to find online.

I’ve since dug through the band’s catalogue, and own all of their albums and on CD or vinyl (I have most in both formats, because I’m a loser fanboy) as well as a few b-sides collections. I saw Biffy the one time they played in New Zealand and it was everything that I’d hoped for and more. I used that review to launch this music blog (and probably got a meagre 10 views – whoo!).

I guess what I’m trying to say is that NME was right. On that little orange sticker, stuck to the front on the album near the parent advisory box, they told me that the album would change my life.

It did.

Mon the Biff!

Joseph James

Buried Treasure: Biffy Clyro – ’57’ (live at Wembley)

Biffy Clyro 57
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Buried Treasure is a semi-regular feature that explores some hidden musical gems – the rare and forgotten B-sides, covers, hidden tracks, live versions and alternative takes that deserve some recognition.

Biffy Clyro – ’57’ Live at Wembley

Biffy Clyro are my favourite band. Most of my friends are probably sick of how much I rave about them.

If I had to pick my favourite release of theirs it would have to be the Revolutions // Live at Wembley CD/DVD set. They have a lot of strong albums to pick from, but Revolutions collects most of their best material, and some of the live versions are better than the studio versions. I’ve used that DVD to convert many of my mates into Biffy believers.

BiffyClyroRevolutionsLiveAtWembleyBox '57'

The limited edition tin box set that I own is excessive. It came half full with confetti from the concert, along with a piece of wood from a smashed guitar, stickers, a poster, a copy of a diary from the tour manager, and the all important CD/DVD. It cost me an arm and a leg – paying the currency conversion fees and international postage – but I don’t regret it in the slightest.

The DVD includes 25 of Biffy Clyro’s best songs that they’d released at that point. Hard hitting rock anthems, emotional acoustic songs, sing-along ballads, and weird indescribable early eclectic stuff. Material from their most recent studio album, Only Revolutions, hadn’t changed much while transitioning from studio to live setting, but it was clear that some songs from their early days had evolved over time.

The best of these was the ’57’, from Biffy Clyro’s début album Blackened Sky.

’57’ is a companion piece to ’27’, another single from the album. It’s written in a typically Biffy unusual style, showcasing their penchant for mathy riffs with odd time signatures. For a three-piece band to work well, every member needs to be pretty capable on their instruments. This more than applies to Biffy Clyro, whose three members are all phenomenally gifted. They even split vocal duties in this song. ’57’ features aggressive grungy loud/soft dynamics, such as the quiet “do, do ,do” prechorus that leads into the explosive chorus.

BiffyClyroBlackenedSkyPurpleLP '57'

The debut album Blackened Sky, in lilac purple. This pressing also features nine B-sides on a second LP.

’57’ is a highlight of Blackened Sky, but the live version was so much more exciting and energetic, somehow rejuvenated. Maybe it’s because it was one of the first songs that the band recorded, giving them about 10 years to hone and improve it before they filmed it at Wembley. The infectious “HEY”s in the chorus work so much better with everyone in the crowd shouting it.

Needless to say, I was over the moon when they played it at their first ever New Zealand show. It was certainly a highlight from an already outstanding set.

Usually studio recordings are better quality than live versions, because songs can be edited and touched up during production. Revolutions is a rare exception to that rule, with ’57’ being the most standout example. You can find live versions of songs that Biffy have written since Revolutions on Opposites: Live at Glasgow, but sadly the audio quality for the latter isn’t nearly as good.

 

Joseph James

The best of 2014

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It’s time to look back and remember some of the highlights on the year just been. Here are some of the best concerts, albums and films I saw/heard in 2014.

The year went by so fast. I was pretty busy with university assignments so didn’t always have time to write reviews. I’m sure I’ve forgotten loads of things that deserve mentioning, but here is what I do remember.


 

Live

Although it wasn’t technically 2014, it was a year ago that my friend Sam and I flew to Sydney to see The Roots play at the Horden Pavilion. I was disappointed that Questlove hid his glorious afro underneath a beanie, but the show was still awesome. “Captain” Kirk, the guitarist, threw his sweaty towel into the crowd. I caught it and gave it to Sam. He keeps it as a treasured memento to remind him of the gig. We also went to the Broadway show of the Lion King and it was too good for words. I bought a CD of the songs of the show. The Australian cast I saw live were better than the recorded version, but I still listen to the CD more than anything else.

I was fortunate enough to tick three bands off my bucket list this year. I saw Nine Inch Nails in Christchurch co-headlining with Queens of the Stoneage. They were incredible. I even got to chat to Trent Reznor at the airport the following day. It was also great to catch up with school friends in Christchurch that I don’t get to see often.

I finally got to see Biffy Clyro live at the Powerstation. I was buzzing for days afterwards. I managed to get a guitar pick and an annotated copy of the set list as well. I also saw Jimmy Eat World at the same venue. I was considering going to Soundwave in Australia to see these two bands at the beginning of the year but couldn’t afford it, so I was rapt when they each got announced to play in NZ.

The Beards were a comedy band that I thoroughly enjoyed. It was nice catching up with my friend Jason from Melbourne, who was working as their follically gifted merch guy. Another funny gig was internet sensation and rapper Ur Boy Bangs, with local hardcore band Declaration AD opening. It was pretty hilarious, but surprisingly fun.

Other live acts that stood out this year include post-rock masters Jakob, pop starlet Ellie Goulding, and modern hardcore band La Dispute.

I’m seeing Shihad in a few days and I’m sure that will also be worthy of this list. I’ve seen them at least ten times in the past and they’ve never disappointed. I’m looking forward to seeing them play material from the new album, FVEY

The gigs that I’m looking most forward to in 2015 so far include Frank Turner, Gary Clark Jr, and Foo Fighters.


 

Albums and EPs

There have been some great new music releases this year. Here’s some that stood out for me, categorised by genre but not in any particular order.

Hip-hop

  • Run The Jewels – RTJ2

El-P and Killer Mike stole the show at the hip-hop triple bill at the beginning of the year, and then proceeded to release an even better second album less than a year after their first.

  • Sage Francis – Copper Gone

Sage Francis continues as a veteran wordsmith wizard. Copper Gone in entertaining and thought-provoking, with great music and clever lyrics. His Wellington show was great as well.

Keith Stanfield caught my attention as a talented actor, and proved himself as a capable rapper too. A dark, tormented début EP.

Post-rock

Of course this album was inevitably excellent. Composer Rhian Sheehan helped to add masterful extra touches to help the Napier trio surpass perfection.

The latest release from one of my fave post-rock bands shows a softer side with great results.

Rock

A new sound, new direction and new name for Solemn Sun helped them create an alt-rock EP that leaves me eagerly awaiting their next album.

I’ve listened to it at least once every day since it arrived in the post. Sublime electro-prog-rock  arisen from the ashes of Cog.

  • Biffy Clyro – Similarities (B-sides album)

It goes without saying that any release from my fave band will get a mention.

 

Queens of the Stoneage – … Like Clockwork and Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways were both major disappointments. Both bands are of high calibre and had lots of hype around the new albums, but the music just wasn’t good enough to make me want to listen to the albums more than once.


 

Films

I only wrote two film reviews this year, but I saw plenty of great movies that deserve a mention

Housebound was by far the stand out film of the year for me. A Kiwi comedy/horror that strikes the perfect balance. The Dark Horse was another NZ film that impressed. Forget The Hobbit, New Zealand can produce some quality films without the need to sell out to Hollywood.

The follow-up to one of my fave movies came out in July. The Raid 2 was just as violent and intense as its predecessor, but with more varied and imaginative fight scenes. The sequel was pretty long, with a more complex plot. Fingers crossed for The Raid 3 in years to come!

The trailer was bad enough to put me off wanting to watch it, but Gone Girl was gripping, albeit unsettling. This was one that surpassed expectations. It also featured a soundtrack written by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, which earns it bonus marks in my book.

2013’s The Wolverine, was abysmal, but the X-Men franchise redeemed themselves with Days Of The Future Past. I was left with plenty of unanswered questions, but it was a clever way to tie in the two timelines.

Another sci-fi that I enjoyed was Snowpiercer, a futuristic dystopian film set on a train that contains the last of earth’s population. It was incredible right until the end, when it lost momentum in the last scene.

I enjoyed Frozen, although as a trainee early childhood teacher went a bit insane because of children singing “Let It Go” non-stop. Lego Movie was fun as well, but Big Hero 6 was my favourite children’s animated film.

The major let down was Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. It was long. It was grand. But it didn’t come together in a satisfying way. I fail to understand why people rated it so highly.


I’ve been blessed to have such a good year. Since launching Will Not Fade earlier this year I’ve had people from all over the world read my reviews. One review featured at Stereofox.com. I’ve had bands ask me to review their music and I’ve gained media passes to attend events. I really enjoy doing this and I plan to continue what I’m doing.

Please let me know what you think. What did you enjoy reading? Are there bands or films you want to see me write about? Did I inspire you to listen to a new band, or watch another film? Do you have any other suggestions?

Thanks for reading. All the best for 2015!

 

Joseph James

Live Review: Biffy Clyro at the Auckland Powerstation

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Biffy Clyro

Powerstation, Auckland

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Last night at my dreams came true.

In the form of three topless bearded Scotsmen, no less!

Biffy Clyro have been my favourite band since I was 15. I finally got to see them live last night. This was the first time the band has played in New Zealand, their performance at Rhythm and Vines in 2009 having been cancelled due to illness.

Biffy Clyro have packed out Wembly Stadium, headlined some of the UK’s biggest music festivals, and toured with rock heavyweights such as Foo Fighters and Muse. Despite this, they are largely unheard of in New Zealand. Not that this was evident last night, with the Powerstation at full capacity, brimming with diehard fans yelling their trademark chant: “Mon the Biff!” (Mon being an abbreviation of “come on”).

The band made a grand entrance. They stormed the stage to a frenzied pre-recorded Scottish shouted chant, one sounding rather like a Maori haka in my mind. If the chant wasn’t enough to rev up to crowd, opening song ‘Different People’ from Biffy’s latest record Opposites made sure to finish the job. The song has a slow build up, but every person in the crowd knew that after a few minutes the band would reach a verse and let loose. And let loose they did.

The show was saturated in energy. The musicians threw themselves around the stage with abandon. The anthems were huge. The ballads soared and the heavier songs were explosive.

“We’re monning as much as we can!” front man Simon Neil shouted to the crowd, “This is our first time in New Zealand, so we’re going to play some older songs. If that’s OK?”  The band then played ‘Wave Upon Wave Upon Wave’ from their 2004 release Infinity Land. This was the first time they’d played it in seven years.

Biffy Clyro front man Simon Neil playing 'God and Satan' solo on acoustic guitar

Biffy Clyro front man Simon Neil plays ‘God and Satan’ solo on acoustic guitar

 

And that wasn’t the only treat for the crowd. The set list was well balanced, drawing from material old and new, acoustic and electric. There was even a B-side thrown into the mix. My personal highlight was ‘57’ from the band’s debut release Blackened Sky.

It was impressive how talented the band was. Each of the three members (front man Simon Neil on guitar, and twin brothers Ben and James Johnston, on drums and bass, respectively) shared vocal duties.  Also onstage were two touring musicians helping to fill out the sound (Mike Vennart on guitar and Richard Ingram on keys). When five musicians can play weird time signatures like that without missing a beat you can tell they’ve had a lot of practise. Just listen to the ‘Living Is a Problem Because Everything Dies’ and you’ll understand exactly what I mean. They had clearly spent a lot of time tightening up their playing to get that unified.

It was obvious that most of the audience were long time fans. You don’t usually see that many people singing along with the band at a show, especially when the lyrics are as off kilter as Biffy’s. But the fans were all singing along, many waving Scottish flags about. Vennart, the rhythm guitarist, even changed from his suit into a red kilt that a punter had thrown onstage.

It was a special night for Biffy Clyro fans. It had been a long time coming, but the band more than made up for the wait.

Joseph James

Set list for the Biffy Clyro Powerstation show in Auckland. Note that the actual set deviated from the plan. 'The Rain', a B-side from Similarities was played after 'Victory Over The Sun'. For the encore 'Folding Stars' was played in place of 'Machines'

Set list for the Biffy Clyro Powerstation show in Auckland.
Note that the actual set deviated from the plan.
‘The Rain’, a B-side from Similarities was played after ‘Victory Over The Sun’.
For the encore ‘Folding Stars’ was played in place of ‘Machines’