Written by Alex Lopez
Scotland’s Biffy Clyro are rock royalty in the UK. So why have so few people heard of them in the US? This blog discusses the band's complex sound and examines their success in the UK and in the States.
Back in the spring of 2011, while I was still going to college in Tucson, I headed to the Rialto Theatre one night to catch Cage the Elephant when their headlining tour in support of Thank You Happy Birthday came through town. My friends and I got there early enough to catch the supporting act — a band by the name of Biffy Clyro. None of us had ever heard of them, so we didn’t know what to expect. Three shaggy, shirtless, tattooed Scotsmen proceeded to take the stage and go absolutely wild as they played catchy, adrenaline-pumping modern rock. They were kind of like the Foo Fighters, except somehow cooler. They did a good job at getting us pumped up for Cage the Elephant, and it turned out to be a solid night.
I didn’t know it at the time, but a few months after that show, the band flew back across the Atlantic to play some of the big European summer festivals. At one of these sold-out festivals — Sonisphere UK, located about an hour north of London — they were the top-billed main stage act on day one.
They headlined over Weezer. Metallica and Slipknot closed out days one and three, respectively.
How is it that a band can be a relatively unknown opening act playing in front of a few hundred people at a mid-sized theatre in the US, while also being billed at the same level as some of the biggest names in rock and playing in front of 60,000 people across the pond just three months later? Granted, fame and success don’t always translate on the other side of the world. Oasis, for instance, never really maintained their level of fame from (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? in the US, yet they remained superstars for the rest of their career in the UK. Nonetheless, most American rock fans at least know who Oasis are. You still hear “Wonderwall” and “Champagne Supernova” every now and then. With Biffy Clyro being as big as they are in the UK, shouldn’t they at least have somewhat of a mainstream presence in the US?
The band, consisting of lead singer/guitarist Simon Neil and twin brothers James and Ben Johnston on bass and drums, respectively, has been a presence in the UK rock scene for several years now, having released six studio albums since 2002. Their first album, Blackened Sky (2002), is a rough, yet earnest mixture of post-grunge and post-hardcore. Their next two albums, The Vertigo of Bliss (2003) and Infinity Land (2004), are heavier with more post-hardcore influence than their debut, and are also more experimental in terms of varying time signatures. The band developed a strong, loyal following in the UK during this period.
In 2007, the band reworked their sound and released more straightforward alternative rock songs with their album Puzzle. Their last two albums, Only Revolutions (2009) and Opposites (2013), continued in this vein. Puzzle saw Biffy Clyro break through to their current success in the UK, with the album reaching No. 2 in the UK charts and the band reaching new fans thanks to support slots for Muse, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Who, and The Rolling Stones. It was during the Only Revolutions era that they opened for Cage the Elephant in the US, then flew back to the UK to headline over Weezer.
So what happened? Did a record executive from the US miss a memo or something? Biffy Clyro’s sound has plenty of appeal to American rock fans. They can write a song as well as their peers in the Foo Fighters and Queens of the Stone Age, their complex instrumentation suggests they’ve jammed to their favorite Rush records back in their formative years, and they have just a hint of the boyish playfulness of Blink-182. Even their first three albums, which are a bit of a departure from their current sound, would not have sounded out of place at the Warped Tour or on Fuse TV back in the mid-2000’s. All things considered, one would think Biffy Clyro would have a larger fan base in the US at this point in their career.
Maybe their sound is just a few years too dated for today’s mainstream. Popular rock nowadays sounds less distorted and more mellow than it did during the 2000’s. With bands like Arctic Monkeys, Tame Impala, Alt-J, and Foster The People being the standards on Spotify playlists, maybe there isn’t as big of an audience for Biffy Clyro after all. Still, Only Revolutions came out at a time when Green Day, the Foo Fighters, and Rise Against were still regulars on the airwaves. Surely they could have received more exposure then?
There could be another reason why they haven’t hit it big yet — perhaps Biffy Clyro’s music is a little too complex for mainstream audiences. As I mentioned earlier, there is a noticeable Rush influence in their sound. The first song on Opposites, “Different People,” is a whirlwind cacophony built on complex guitar tapping, frantic drumming, and an irregular time signature.
The next song, “Black Chandelier,” has a more subtle song structure complexity. A crushing, Pantera-style breakdown appears out of nowhere in the middle of a gentle, heartache-tinged pop-rock song that otherwise wouldn’t sound out of place on a Paramore album. When was the last time you heard anything matching either of those descriptions on the radio?
Whatever the reason, Biffy Clyro is still criminally underrated on this side of the Atlantic. However, the band has plenty of opportunities to continue to win over fans in the United States. The last time they came here, they headlined mid-sized theaters on a mini-tour of the West Coast in February of 2014. The year before that, they opened for Muse on their arena tour and played Coachella. The band is currently recording their new album, and I’m sure they’ll continue to grow and gain more fans in North America. And who knows? Maybe — just maybe — one day we’ll get to see them finish out a festival like Coachella or Bonnaroo in all their glory.