Mercury vs Neptune Part 1: Fuck Buttons/Biffy Clyro

Told you I’d do these first. Now, some disclosure. I actually have ‘Tarot Sport’ already; I like it quite a lot, and have seen Fuck Buttons twice in the last year. So they have the edge. But I’m going to try to give ‘Only Revolutions’ a fair chance too, so here we go.

I’ve actually seen Biffy Clyro as well, come to think of it. It was as support for Muse at Wembley Stadium in 2007 (great gig, though I’m less wild for Muse than I used to be), and I mainly just remember them being bare chested. The music is not recalled. But that was then, and Biffy Clyro are now apparently something of a big draw. I see that they are at the level of pretty big live venues/festival slots, and have a big following, although I was a little amused that their ‘secret’ gig at Glastonbury was so secret that the band announced it beforehand, and printed up thousands of Biffy Clyro flags to promote the exact time and place of said ‘secret’ gig. Thom Yorke and Johhny Greenwood didn’t need no flags… and they got a vast crowd (great, great gig).

But anyway, the album. Sounds like the lighter end of the heavy rock spectrum to me. ‘Hard rocking’, but with strong melodies and radio production. ‘Mountains’ has a chorus that is very much BIG AND EPIC, as do most of the others. General vocals make a point of being Scottish (which is fine, a bit of accented singing can add to the character of music muchly – see The Phantom Band), although they are generally higher in the mix than I’d put them. I will say that I started off quite liking this album; ‘The Captain’ stops and starts, has nice stabs of brass (and some organ), and basically made me think “Hmm, they might have something here.” And next track ‘That Golden Rule’ seemed to have some decent string section/band interaction, above the cursory level of ‘tack on some strings here’ that is often found (including later on this album). I’m not saying it’s Owen Pallet (‘Heartland’ is supreme), but it was doing something a little uncommon and interesting.

However, this does not hold true for long. The guitars quickly become a bit dull and samey, like the guitarist has got stuck on one tone for the whole album, and I found this a bit wearing. The album is a fairly standard 42 minutes, but it felt longer to me on first listen, which isn’t a great sign. I think it just needed more variety from what is already a fairly generic sound.

There are of course a few obligatory quieter numbers (which no mainstream rock record can do without it seems), like the acoustic ‘God and Satan’, and ‘Know Your Quarry’, and there’s also ‘Many of Horror’, which I presume is the song hardcore teenage Biffy Clyro fans will put as the backing music to their Youtube video of ’emotional memories’ photos (This may be overly harsh and assumptive). We also have a few traces of strings here, brass there, but it doesn’t really do enough to broaden the sound. And everything has been put through a smoothness filter for the benefit of Radio One, which again doesn’t help the variety of the sound.

It seems that I might like this album more in the form of a single; the first two tracks on the A and the B side would do fairly nicely. But as an album… there just isn’t enough thats different here! I mean different from a lot of other music, and different from the other songs on the album; this fairly quickly became a sort of became a general ‘Mainstream Rock’ mush for me. And this lack of adventure makes it a very odd choice for a Mercury prize, supposedly rewarding creativity and freshness. So its a no for Biffy Clyro.

On to Fuck Buttons! Now the opening track, ‘Surf Solar’, is a serious tune, my album highlight probably. It starts with all sorts of whirrings and beeps and tones- sounds like a room full of old machines, synthesisers and oscillators starting up. Then a solid 4/4 beat enters, then another scratching sort of sound, everything clarifies, and…. A trademark Fuck Buttons wave of textured noise pours in. But it doesn’t obliterate the rest of the sounds; this track (and the rest of the album) is very dense, and you can make out every part, if you listen. There are snatches of a warped voice, odd sounds looping all over the place, with the beat keeping things rigidly on track. Later, a live drum beat enters, and a few minutes after that, the original noise wave climbs higher in a burst. And finally, after about 7 minutes of solar surfing (and the title of this track seems very apt to me), the beat disapears, sounds start to collapse in on themselves, and tones drop downwards. The machine slowly drags to a whirring halt, and the next tracks buzz grows over the top of the embers of the last.

I won’t go into so much detail on the other tracks- they follow a similar sort of pattern of building to a climax bit by bit. A wall of fuzzy sounding electronic noise will usually enter at some point. The tracks fall between 9 and 11 minutes long, apart from two 5 minute interludey tracks. There is certainly variation; ‘The Lisbon Maru’ is calmer, less erupting (and given it’s title is that of a sinking ship, perhaps more melancholy), ‘Olympians’ is euphoric in it’s ‘chorus’ (or as close to choruses as you can get with instumental electronic ten minute tracks), wheras ‘Flight of the Feathered Serpent’ is a full-on techno epic. But all the tracks on ‘Tarot Sport’ are very much of the same kind; they have the same feel, the same kind of texture to the sound as each other. But the key is that the tracks are similar to each other, but not particularly similar to anything else. There is certainly very much influence from techno, noise and electro, but I have heard nothing that combines these influences into quite this form (not even Fuck Buttons first album, which leans more towards noise). Unlike ‘Only Revoloutions’, ‘Tarot Sport’ is treading new ground. And also unlike that album, the stylistic similarity between ‘Tarot Sport’s’ tracks make it a cohesive whole, an album in the one body of work sense. It flows properly from start to finish, with peaks and troughs, whereas ‘Only Revolutions’ was more a collection of songs, with no particular link that I could find.

It should be obvious which album I prefer. Though I think ‘Tarot Sport’ might benefit from pressing the last two tracks into one (between them, they do the same thing for slightly too long), I thought ‘Only Revolutions’ would benefit from being pressed from 12 tracks down to 2, so… Fuck Buttons have made a better album, and an album which fulfills the criteria of the Mercury’s (“exciting, inventive…”) better than the one that actually did get nominated. You should go and listen to it. Go on.

Mercury: 0 / Neptune: 1

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