I first heard Biffy Clyro in 2005 while I was on tour in the UK with my old band, Gratitude. The Scottish power trio was playing the Reading and Leeds festivals at the same time as us, and I heard snippets of their set as I roamed the grounds. Their jagged, quirky sound caught my ear and I filed their bizarre name away for future inspection.
Six years later, Biffy Clyro have achieved the level of arena-rock status in much of western Europe. If you've never heard the band, imagine a potpourri of Queens of the Stone Age, Foo Fighters, and fellow British brethren Muse. But while the latter opts for a rather accent-neutral (albeit operatic) vocal style, Biffy Clyro singer/guitarist Simon Neil lets his raw Scottish voice rip without apology—maybe more so than any popular rock band since 80s powerhouse Big Country.
I was shocked to find that "The Biff" had achieved such mass appeal, being that their songs tend to be extremely quirky. But it's evident on their latest release (2009's Only Revolutions) that the band have graduated to a bigger, poppier, and more triumphant sound-one that may finally pave the way for American crossover success.
Unfortunately, on February 20, Biffy Clyro played to a half-full 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis. This was partially due to their cult-level of fandom in the States, but also because of a day-long blizzard that laid waste to the metro area. A quick Twitter check revealed that several ticketholders were stranded at home (I barely made it myself, getting stuck a couple of times on my way to First Avenue). Even opening act Moving Mountains cancelled due to the dangerous travel conditions.
Those who braved the trek were treated to an almost two-hour Wembley Stadium-sized rock concert crammed into the cozy confines of one of the smallest clubs in town. The Biff—comprising frontman Neil and the twin-brother rhythm section of Ben (drums) and James (bass) Johnston—ripped through their 23-song set with the urgency of a band playing their last gig on Earth.
Any concerns I had of these guys mailing it in for such a small show were erased from the first note of "The Captain," the swinging, stomping opening track from Only Revolutions. The shirtless, tattooed trio played nearly all of their latest release, including standout track "Bubbles," an upbeat, tension-building tune that exploded into a half-time sing-along chorus reminiscent of a European soccer chant.
A friend of mine exclaimed, "I can't believe there's just three of them making all that sound!" I agreed. I kept listening for hints of pre-recorded backing tracks or perhaps an off-stage guitar player (they use a second guitarist—Mike Vennart of Oceansize—for live gigs across the pond), but I could detect no sign of cheating from the lads.
Neil was especially fantastic. The front man played his high-strung axes with flawless fluidity and dynamic control-shifting from precise note-ridden fretwork to meaty riffs. Bearing a slight resemblance to Charles Manson (it's the hair and the beard), the svelte Scotsman also delivered a pitch-perfect vocal performance whilst spastically contorting and flailing about the tiny stage. The two Johnstons were locked in airtight unison (must be handy to have twins on drums and bass). Much of Biffy's signature sound revolves around the brothers' tricky rhythmic tendencies.
Equally impressive was how well the two harmonized and complemented Neil's vocal. On the soaring "Mountains" (which reached #5 on the UK singles chart) the whole band belted out the mighty chorus: "I am the mountain, I am the sea, you can't take that away from me!"
I thought, "If this is how these guys bring it for 100 people on a snowy Sunday night in Minneapolis, how much energy do they give when playing for tens of thousands at an outdoor festival in Glasgow or London?"
The Biff weren't always cranked up to eleven, however. The band showcased a more vulnerable side with acoustic songs like the heart-breaking "Folding Stars" and "Machines" off 2007's oft-somber effort, Puzzle. With the decibel-level down to a whisper, Neil's earnest, sorrow-filled singing revealed a band that is capable of much more than just tricky math-rock and raucous sing-alongs.
There was little banter, though Neil did offer up the obligatory "So where is Prince anyway?" query. The only mention of the snowstorm came late in the set. "Last time we played here the bridge fell because it was so hot," said Johnson (the bass-playing version). "I swear we're not bad luck!"
On the contrary, Biffy Clyro brought good vibes and broad smiles on a day when there was much to be annoyed by in the Twin Cities. Those in attendance will likely remember the intimate performance for some time, as the Biff will surely be playing a much larger venue the next time around.
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