By Andrew Barr (@weeandreww)
So many legendary albums are by bound together by the fact that they have become inseparable from their “story” and how they were created. Think of Radiohead’s seminal OK Computer, and you’ll think of Thom Yorke’s paranoia after constant touring and his fears of technology. Think of Nirvana’s legendary In Utero and you’ll think of Kurt’s drug addiction, depression and demise, shortly after the record’s release.
Biffy Clyro’s 4th LP, Puzzle is one of those albums. Puzzle was written after the death of frontman Simon Neil’s mother, so lyrically, the record deals heavily with loss and grief, and the record’s weighty subject matter has led to Neil calling it the band’s most important record. Celebrating its 10th birthday (or anniversary, depending on your preference), Biffy’s fourth album has proved crucial to their discography (and career) in the years since its 2007 release.
The whole album deals with aspects of Neil’s grief but the track that deals with this subject matter most explicitly is Folding Stars, a beautiful ballad which opens with finger-picked guitar lines and builds to a big chorus which hears Neil shouting his mum’s name, followed by the beautiful tribute “you will be folding stars”.
Folding Stars is undoubtedly the album’s most “crucial” track for a whole host of reasons, not just the lyrical content. Puzzle is the first album that Biffy made on a major label after moving to 14th Floor Records and, for a band who claim they have always worked in trilogies, marked the start of their second trilogy.
Puzzle sees the Ayrshire trio embrace their pop sensibilities more than their first three records and places less emphasis on abstract prog-rock anthems which trademarked the band’s first trilogy. Folding Stars is the album’s poppiest track, which songwriter Simon Neil alluded to in an interview where he said “It’s probably the prettiest song we’ve ever written as a band…that was the one on the record that needed to be absolutely perfect and I know she (Neil’s mum) would love that song”.
Biffy’s move into mainstream territory paid dividends: Puzzle shot to number 2 in the UK album charts and appeared on multiple end-of-year lists in 2007. What has enabled this record to stand the test of time is just how well Simon Neil and twins Ben and James Johnston managed to merge their complex, angular songwriting into more regular song structures, without diluting what people loved so much about Biffy’s earlier works.
Anyone who claims that the trio “sold out” should be pointed in the direction of the album’s opener, the soaring Living Is A Problem Because Everything Dies, which opens with eerie violins and a minute of irregular guitar strums, before an anthemic chorus where Simon Neil is echoed by a choir. Musically, it’s perhaps the most “Biffy Clyro” song that Biffy Clyro have ever written, as it is impossible to speak about without throwing up words such as “bonkers” or “bizarre”.
Further proof of the band’s left-field roots is seen on Get Fucked Stud, perhaps the album’s heaviest moment, where an almost menacingly smooth instrumental transition into a blood-and-thunder chorus, with Neil’s aggressive vocals sounding almost confrontational.
While these tracks showcase the fact that the band hadn’t lost their edge, they feel unmistakably like a Biffy Clyro 2.0, and the lyrics have a massive hand in this. The Ayrshire trio’s first 3 records were loved for many reasons but the lyrics were rarely one of them. However, on Puzzle, every line feels more considered and more poetic as a result.
As Dust Dances is one of the best examples of the musical and lyrical progression that can be seen on Puzzle. The track begins with a pretty straightforward instrumental, but Biffy’s prog-rock roots can be heard as the track builds to a huge crescendo, which feels even more immense with a focus on Neil’s lyrics. Throughout, Neil personifies death in the chorus lyrics of “it’s bigger than everything it decides to touch”, a poetic but terrifying observation of mortality. The crescendo then hears Neil echoing “It’s such a lonely ride”, exemplifying the pessimistic state he found himself in after his mother’s death.
Despite the impression from tracks like Living is a Problem… and As Dust Dances, Puzzle isn’t a “depressing” album on the whole. In fact, the record contains some of the band’s most “fun” songs in their entire discography. Saturday Superhouse and Who’s Got a Match? Cannot be described as anything but “fun”, and have grown into favourites in Biffy’s famed live show. The latter has a punchy, catchy instrumental, with a guitar line that has an almost exotic feel to it, and Neil’s playful vocal performance makes the track even more enjoyable.
A tribute that must be paid to Puzzle is that 10 years and 3 studio albums later, so many of this album’s tracks are still mainstays in Biffy’s aforementioned live sets. Living is a Problem now stands out as one of the more obscure tracks in the set, and tracks like Get Fucked Stud and Semi-Mental display the band’s more aggressive sets.
However, Puzzle didn’t just add to Biffy’s live set, it also played a part in developing their live shows. Stunning album closer Machines is a live staple, where twins Ben and James Johnston depart the stage and leave frontman Neil to perform the bare-bones acoustic number. The track feels like a sequel to Folding Stars and the lyrics of Neil regaining his optimism are among the band’s best, including the almost iconic chorus lyric “take the pieces and build them skywards” which countless Biffy fans and fanatics have had tattooed since 2007.
Tracks like Machines and Folding Stars obviously stick out as slow songs in the live set but more than that – they add an emotional depth to Biffy’s live shows, which has been expanded in recent years with tracks like Many of Horror and Re-arrange, which now feel crucial to the band’s performances, including now iconic Reading and T in the Park headline slots.
The best indicator of how important the record is to Biffy and their fans can be seen on the left rib of all 3 band members and of countless fans: a tattoo of the missing puzzle piece has become a badge of honour for Biffy fans and it’s easy to see why: Puzzle feels nothing short of Biffy Clyro’s most important album.