There are few acts that have as much relevance to both the mainstream world and the alternative world as Biffy Clyro. Sure, rock bands do get bigger, but in terms of what can be defined as a genuine alternative, Biffy have never pared back their sound or vision, and they’ve earned huge amounts of respect for it. It mightn’t always pan out the way they want (which is partly what made 2016’s Ellipsis such a disappointment), but their vigour for trying can’t be faulted in the slightest. And that’s a standpoint that seems to be greatly encapsulated by Balance, Not Symmetry, which is not only released as a surprise album, but also serves as the soundtrack to a film of the same name written by frontman Simon Neil with direction Jamie Adams. The ambition here is rather plain to see, especially in the huge creative aspect that the band are taking in this project that surpasses most musician-turned-filmmaker endeavours that come to mind, but when the onus is on this soundtrack to function as a standalone album as well, it’s a tough ask for any band. Still, Biffy have proven themselves against the odds time and time again, and considering there’s virtually no musical peaks left for them to assail, this does feel like a logical move, and one that they have the creative nous to make for an interesting experience if nothing else.
And that’s an important qualifier as, given that the film itself hasn’t been released yet, the sole flagship feature of this whole project at the minute is the soundtrack, and that means it’s even more vital that it can survive as its own beast. If this was to be a disjointed collection of fragments reliant on currently nonexistent visuals to function, it couldn’t be seen as anything other than a failure; the balance is arguably just as important as the music on offer, and with nothing to contextualise any of it, that music ultimately has to survive in the film, but to a greater degree on its own. And somewhat appropriately, one of the first things that comes to mind with Balance, Not Symmetry is Pink Floyd’s The Wall, not only in how it stands as a perfect counterpart to the evocative, warped imagery of its own film, but also in the way its been heralded as a truly classic album in its own right. Obviously, Balance, Not Symmetry isn’t quite to that extent, but what could’ve ended up as a horrendously misguided and self-indulgent mess is actually a genuinely compelling and engaging progressive rock album, to the point where, yes, this does indeed stand as its own album, more or less under the usual Biffy Clyro seal of quality.
It’s impressive how few compromises have been made here as well, even when they perhaps could be afforded to. Balance, Not Symmetry still displays the problems endemic with many modern Biffy albums, namely a sense of bloat with tracks like Plead and Jasabiab that could definitely afford to be cut, and apart from a motif of references to colours (which, even then, is pretty much dropped after the first half), some of the more explicitly oblique writing doesn’t really do a great deal. But also like many modern Biffy albums, Balance, Not Symmetry is far, far more than the sum of its parts, and when everything comes together, the results can be genuinely stellar. This is still a morphing, breathing piece of work that’s defined by its own fearlessness, which is what gives every angular mini-explosion on the title track or Fever Dream’s growth from kaleidoscopic electronic whirrs to screaming, metallic monster hit with so much punch. At this point, Biffy are masters at creating layered, enticing music just like this, but Balance, Not Symmetry never feels complacent. In some ways, it’s the perfect way to create a film soundtrack, as tracks like Tunnels And Trees and Following Master morph within themselves and create their own palpable sense of drama. And with an execution that remains as rock-solid as it is, with Neil’s vocals having a similarly fluid adaptability and a guitar tone that ranges from crystalline indie beauty to guttural roars, there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be seen as a Biffy Clyro album proper; it has all the hallmarks of their usual work, and it’s carried out with the same panache and near-flawless musicianship.
But to properly judge Balance, Not Symmetry on that scale, it’s worth taking into account the quality of the hooks and melodies, the features that have been the integral fuel that’s driven Biffy’s infiltration of the mainstream space, and just as no compromises have been made in terms of experimentation, it’s the exact same thing here. The crossover moments on Biffy Clyro albums have often been the strongest, and that’s no different here, particularly when factoring in just how much emotive power and size the laser-focused pop-rock of All Singing And All Dancing or the enormous power-ballad exaltation of Touch have. It’s a testament to how far watertight pop construction can go, and the fact that the band are still able to ramp up the guitars to colossal sizes and throw in pulsating electronics to top it all off, yet still feel wholly accessible, shows just how fantastic they actually are. This album is just over an hour long, but it rarely feels is, such is the dedication to bringing their unshakable ear for melody right to the forefront. Even tracks that might appear as filler are rather few and far between; this is about as concise and focused as an experimental, truly alternative rock album comes, and it’s all the better for it.
It’s why, above all else, Balance, Not Symmetry can stand as its own project. The added ambition of the upcoming film does hold a lot of weight for just what else Biffy Clyro can achieve in the future, but none of this needs to viewed as a mere accompaniment to get the full benefits. It’s quite simply a Biffy Clyro album that’s as great as ever, channelling everything that’s seen them become that way while continuing to push themselves and keep looking ahead and what’s up next. It’s the reason why Biffy deserve their status as one of the most celebrated rock bands the UK has; rarely do they rest on their laurels and play it safe, and their immense achievements have been borne from that exact philosophy. This is perhaps the most definitive instance of that to date, and the fact that it’s as great as it is couldn’t be more exciting for what’s to come.
For fans of: Frightened Rabbit, Deaf Havana, Hundred Reasons
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Balance, Not Symmetry’ by Biffy Clyro is out now on Warner Bros. / 14th Floor Records.