Biffy Clyro – “Modern Magic Formula” (Stereogum Premiere)
What follows is a somewhat-lengthy digression on the nature of one person’s fandom. To skip to the song-reviw portion of this post, click here.
The record store I worked at was called Rebel Rebel — it is called Rebel Rebel; as far as I know, it’s still standing — located in Manhattan’s West Village, on Bleecker between Grove and Christopher. The store got its name from the Bowie song, because the store’s owner is a Bowie fanatic; due to the insane Bowie esoterica he’s collected therein, it’s become sort of a destination for Bowie zealots visiting New York City. For locals, though, Rebel was known for trafficking in all manner of dance music — mix CDs for enthusiasts, 12″ vinyl for DJs — and British pop and guitar rock, from the Chameleons to the Smiths to Oasis to the Libertines and so on. I worked there in the back half of the ’90s, while the Britpop of Cool Britannia was at its peak, and the experience is embedded in my musical identity. This was pre-piracy, pre-downloading period, really (I left the job in August 1999, three months after the launch of Napster), and record stores were essential, thriving.
Furthermore, ownership of music had a different value than it does today; a record collection was a reflection of a person’s education, taste, and character. As I was immersed in a culture of new British rock, I became obsessed with new British rock; every week, I would read the Brit publications like NME, Melody Maker, Q, Mojo — because we sold those, too — and every day, I would redirect some of my earnings back toward the shop, heading home with piles of very expensive CD singles from the likes of Ash and Cast and Space and Embrace and lots of other bands of varying quality, many of whom probably never even played a single show in North America. But because of my financial and emotional investment, I found myself strangely dedicated to and protective of this stream of UK bands whose US profile was more or less limited to the Anglophiles at Rebel Rebel, and even today, if Manic Street Preachers is playing New York City, I am there.
Biffy Clyro’s first album, Blackened Sky, was released some two and a half years after my time at Rebel had come to a close, but they were (for me) a vestige of that time in my life: I read about the Scottish trio in NME — maybe they were “Single Of The Week” or something — found an unopened promotional copy of their debut album in a cutout bin, and bought it. It’s a pretty great debut, blending Victory Records screamo with epic Mogwai-eque instrumental dynamics and a vocal brogue thicker than Bellhaven Stout, although I put it aside months after purchasing it. After that, Biffy released two albums of math-y prog-hardcore, which I had no interest in whatsoever (though the band’s more zealous fans will tell you this was their strongest work). In 2007, though, following (and inspired by) the passing of frontman Simon Neil’s mother, they released their fourth album, Puzzle, an absolute barnburner of heavy guitar pop, dextrous as a high-wire act, catchy as malaria. I fell on the album almost by accident, and fell in love with it. The album made them legit stars in the UK, where they were sometimes referred to as “the British Foo Fighters,” an insult worthy of violent retribution. To my ear, they fused the melodicism, accents, and urgency of Frightened Rabbit with the heaviness and extreme instrumental precision of Queens Of The Stone Age. (There is also some Muse in there, which is not meant as high praise, but hey, not gonna lie, it’s in there.) After Puzzle, they released the even more open, melodic, and ambitious Only Revolutions in 2009, which was loaded with singles and launched them to superstardom in the UK. Their mainstream recognition exploded when X Factor 2010 finalist (and eventual winner) Matt Cardle performed an execrable rendition of Only Revolution‘s superb power ballad “Many Of Horror” in the show’s finale, and later released a version of the song as his debut single (inexplicably retitled “When We Collide”).
Now, Biffy are set to release their sixth LP, Opposites, next month in the States; it’s been out in the UK since January. Over there, the band have a No. 1 album and are headlining festivals like Leeds and Reading. The last two times I saw Biffy in NYC, meanwhile, they played actual basements: the Bowery Electric and the Studio At Webster Hall, both of which are charitably about the same size as my living room, and at least half the crowd in both places had some sort of British accent. The idea of making Biffy happen in the States seems impossible at this point: How do you introduce a band on their sixth album, in their second decade of work, to an unfamiliar culture accustomed to early-adoption? Fortunately Opposites is good enough to perhaps make the impossible less so. We’re premiering one of the album’s standouts, “Modern Magic Formula,” here, today, and while I don’t know that it’s the perfect introduction to the band, I also don’t know what one song would be at this point. But it has a lot of what I love about Biffy: guitars as loud and mechanically precise as a Decepticon fighter jet; a pub chorus big enough to fill a stadium; and Neil’s opium-addictive voice, front and center. Listen.
Opposites is out 3/12 via Warners.