“It’s always wonderful when we come to Leeds,” Simon Neil gushes, midway through Biffy Clyro’s two-hour-plus set at the First Direct Arena in the city. “But it’s a nice change to not be in a muddy field.” His quip alludes to the rarity of an indoor show in Yorkshire for the Scottish hard-rock outfit; their last two major shows in the county saw them headline the Bramham Park leg of Reading and Leeds Festivals, both this year and in 2013. New record Ellipsis hasn’t caught fire the way their previous outings have however – and with curtains draped across several cavernous seating blocks in the venue, questions can be asked whether Ayrshire’s most famous sons are still at the top of the game.
|Simon Neil of Biffy Clyro performing live at Reading|
Festival 2016. (Courtesy of Emma Swan.)
They answer their critics with a resounding yes, in terms of performance, power and energy; within the span of the first song, the trio – guitarist Neil and brothers James and Ben Johnston – reassert their immaculate live credentials as one of Britain’s most thrilling acts on a stage. Juggling new material and fan favourites in an expertly balanced setlist, they deliver a bruising opening salvo that includes the ferocious Wolves of Winter and the math-rock edged Living Is A Problem Because Everything Dies, before dropping power-ballad Biblical to deafening screams and a sea of handheld phone lights. The sheer heft, the wall of sound produced, is blindly exhilarating.
It helps that all three members are intensely charismatic characters and vocalists in their own rights. Neil, initially dressed in a flowing white cassock before disrobing to join his topless bandmates in semi-nakedness, is at turns a primal force of aggression and an oddly coquettish individual with an incredible dextrous voice, both baleful and bashful. He beams in obviously genuine pleasure when the crowd laps up early debut album cut Justboy, and profusely thanks the crowd after every song, a man for whom the experience of playing before thousands is still a treasured thrill. James, on the bass, skips and scampers across the stage in high pantomime, impressing on the stoner-rock-rush of Bubbles and permanently sporting a mile-wide grin. Ben, behind the drums, gets less of a chance to show off compared to the other two – but his soaring backing vocals on Puzzle number Folding Stars give it an aching quality that haunts behind the crashing fretwork and twinkling synths.
Their new material translates well to the stage too, and is better received than perhaps expected. Howl is played at a frantic pace, kinetic and driving, whilst new single Re-arrange, a Taylor Swift-esque country pop ballad, is met by arms aloft and sighing couples embracing throughout its duration. Only the somewhat drippy People is underwhelming; and even then, that is a minor gripe at the best. They are aided by a typical laser-guided light show that is elevated by the unusual staging – a four-tiered stage, encircled by large square frames of increasing sizes that pulse with the background visuals, creating various optical illusions. Angry red hues are conjured for new song In the Name of the Wee Man; monochrome flashes are rolled out aptly for Black Chandelier. Combined, both band and added effects are rather OTT and all the more enjoyable for it.
|James Johnston of Biffy Clyro performing live at Reading|
Festival 2016. (Courtesy of Emma Swan.)
But it’s the older material that truly lifts the show into top gear, be it the doff of the cap to the old-school fans with Infinity Land deep cut Wave Upon Wave Upon Wave, or the delightful pleasure of Different People’s reverb-drenched organ heralding mass pit activity. When they drop a particularly brutal rendition of That Golden Rule, there’s a moment where the churning ocean of bodies in front of the stage threatens to spill past the barriers, such is the alacrity with which fans throw themselves around. They roll out the biggest hits near the close of the main set – a roaring Mountains, a triumphant Many of Horror, a beautiful solo acoustic rendition of Machines that leaves shivers and goosebumps in its wake – before capping off proceedings with an encore including the soaring anthemics of The Captain. “Thank you so much, Leeds,” Neil snarls with a smile before they close with Stingin’ Belle. “We are Biffy. Fucking. Clyro.” Mon the Biff, they say. Mon the Biff indeed.