Written by Andrew Barr (@weeandreww)
In 2017, it’s hard to imagine Biffy Clyro as anything but the topless, tattooed rock titans who churn out landmark festival headline slots with ease. After playing 2 of the best headline sets in recent memory at Reading and Leeds in 2013 and in 2016, with the small matter of releasing chart-topping 7th album Ellipsis in 2016, Biffy have established themselves as one of the biggest rock bands in the country, as well as arguably the most exciting band in the upper echelons of modern rock music.
However, Biffy’s ascent to the top of these stages was anything but straightforward. If their journey to the top of rock music could be represented by climbing a mountain, Simon Neil, James Johnston and Ben Johnston would have rejected the obvious route of the man-made path, in favour of scaling the most treacherous, hilly surface. 15 years ago, at the very beginning of Biffy’s long and difficult ascent was debut album Blackened Sky, released to little fanfare on indie label Beggar’s Banquet.
One of the many qualities that Biffy’s legions of fans adore them for is their originality, their inventiveness and sometimes straight-up weirdness. Blackened Sky, while flawed and not the finished article by any stretch of the imagination, was a clear marker of Biffy’s immense potential and Simon Neil’s complex, time signature-bending songwriting abilities.
As for the record’s flaws, they are not major by any stretch, and the band themselves are well aware of these. In a Noisey interview, they were asked to rank their albums and placed Blackened Sky in last place, and Simon Neil said himself “there’s things we would immediately change; there’s that real naivety in not knowing how to make things sound good” with bassist James Johnston following with “We smoked so much hash while we were making it. It’s all so slow.”
Despite these shortcomings, Blackened Sky is an enthralling listen from start to finish, and is a record that showcases a more experimental Biffy Clyro than the chart-topping one we know today. There is perhaps no better song (and title) to kick-start Biffy’s recording career than opener Joy.Discovery.Invention. It is a two-part song that most listeners with knowledge of Biffy Clyro would say could only have been written by Simon Neil. The first minute and a half features Neil’s trademark Ayrshire accent singing over finger-picked guitar chords before the song explodes into life for the second half, peaking with an anthemic chorus that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of Biffy’s more recent, commercially successful records.
It would almost be equivocal to sacrilege to speak about the anthemic qualities of Blackened Sky and fail to mention both Justboy and 57. Both these tracks are soaring stadium anthems that somehow fit snugly alongside experimental prog tracks that make up the rest of the record. Justboy especially showcases Simon Neil’s lyrical talent from an early age with the soaring outro of “I am hoping through the dark clouds/ light shall break and bring a bright sky” – a lyric that has been tattooed on countless Biffy fans since the record’s release in 2002. Meanwhile, 57 is perhaps the most “emo” song in Biffy’s entire discography, a breakup song full of heartbreak and vengeance delivered over a roaring guitar riff which encompasses perhaps the best “doo doo doo” singalong of Biffy’s 20-year career. The greatest testament that can be paid to these 2 tracks is that 57 and Justboy still appear commonly on Biffy setlists in 2017 to rapturous reactions from fans, with both tracks showing no signs of aging.
While it would almost be sacrilege to fail to mention 57 and Justboy, it would be almost as criminal to talk about 57 and neglect its more moody and angsty cousin, 27. This track pops up on live setlists more sporadically, and so has gained “hidden gem” status among Biffy fans. Like much of the record, 27 is another breakup track, with a brilliantly dark guitar riff ensuring the verses bubble just below boiling point before the chorus explodes into life with Neil’s vocals backed up by a roar from drummer Ben Johnston, which is present more than a few times on Blackened Sky.
However, while these 3 tracks appear on the odd Biffy setlist, many of the tracks from this debut are just too foreign in comparison with the band’s current material to ever get a run-out in a live show. Biffy like to view their studio albums in trilogies and the trilogy of Blackened Sky, The Vertigo of Bliss and Infinity Land is seen as their wonky experimental phase where the songs would often lack a traditional verse-chorus-verse structure and almost completely eschew standard time signatures and guitar tunings.
While Blackened Sky isn’t as experimental as the two records that followed it, it’s balls-to-the-wall (to borrow a phrase from Simon Neil) heaviness and directness are the qualities which make this so memorable. Kill the Old, Torture Their Young is a 6-minute track which opens with the whispered words “this will kill”, before a guitar riff explodes into life and Simon Neil’s criminally underused scream takes the fore. The Go-Slow rivals the previously mentioned track and shows the strong influence of Nirvana on Biffy’s early material and on this album. The heaviest track on this album is penultimate cut Stress on the Sky, which peaks in a scream-off between Neil and drummer Ben Johnston, where the lyrics are almost indecipherable, but they almost don’t matter; the sheer power of this song alone makes it a standout.
However, elsewhere on the record, the lyrics take up a role of vital importance. Many Biffy fans like to conveniently forget that while Many of Horror (from 2009’s Only Revolutions) has gone down as one of the best rock ballads in recent years, it was also hand-picked by Simon Cowell as Matt Cardle’s X Factor winners single (and was then completely butchered). Despite the cover, the choice to use this song is testament to how stunning Simon Neil’s songwriting and lyricism can be; and there are tracks on Blackened Sky which show these qualities at their very best.
While it is so much more than a break-up album and there are countless facets to the lyrics on this record, Blackened Sky is actually the only Biffy record that has concerned itself with break-up, so many lyrics on this record are less abstract and more direct than on other Biffy releases. The aforementioned 27 features the simple but brilliant imagery of “thoughts once pure are now diluted”. The best lyrics are reserved for the only 2 real ballads on this record, The verses in Christopher’s River should serve as a lesson in lyrical storytelling, while Scary Mary overcomes teenage cliché (what must I have become/to deserve all the shit that you give me?) to close the album on a poignant note, with the record ending on the quite brilliant “give time to your heart/give time to your soul/ release them all”.
On Blackened Sky, Biffy Clyro announced themselves as a band with stratospheric potential, but also one with more than enough talent at present. It places festival-ready anthems comfortably alongside some of the most obscurely brilliant tracks the band has ever written, showcasing the band’s massive potential but also their unwillingness to scale the mountain in any way but their own.
Not bad for a record made by 3 teenage stoners from Kilmarnock.