Having apparently polished off last decade a week ago, I’m now going back to it in the shape of a review of two albums which came out late last year. They’re both albums I bought with part of my Christmas fiscal stimulus package courtesy of family members close enough to feel obliged to give me presents and distant enough to have no idea what I might like. Anyway, the first is Locked Out from the Inside by Nine Black Alps, which came out in October and the second is Only Revolutions by Biffy Clyro, which was released in November.
Locked Out from the Inside is the third album from the criminally underrated Nine Black Alps. Their previous two releases, Everything Is (2005) and Love/Hate (2007) were essentially ignored despite both being superb albums and I fear the Locked Out from the Inside will suffer much the same fate. Despite this I honestly think it’s my favourite album of 2009. There has always been a strong undercurrent of anger in Nine Black Alp’s music, especially prominent in Everything Is, however this time around they have managed to channel is far more effectively than before. Everything Is was a directionless, structure less album with some great songs but very little unity. Love/Hate by contrast tried to impose a theme on the general passion inherent in the sound of Everything Is, but this was too broad and at the same too restrictive; it felt like the emotion was being restrained somewhat.
Locked Out from the Inside manages to do what Love/Hate failed to do; channel the raw emotion of the band without subduing it. If the current economic climate has been a bad thing for most people, it has actually been good for Nine Black Alps from an artistic point of view because it has given the band a clear target at which to aim their general disillusionment with society. This is especially obvious in the powerful anthem towards the end of the album; Buy Nothing. The topic of the song is clear from even the title. The album as a whole has a strong theme of disillusionment at consumerist, materialistic society. Songs like Every Photograph Steals your Soul and Ghost in the Shell have especially strong feelings of disillusionment and distain holding them together.
Musically and lyrically the album shows much greater maturity than previously, as indeed does the more unified and clear direction of the album. Nine Black Alps will never be renowned for writing great pieces of music. Their songs rely heavily on distorted guitars, heavy beats and brilliantly powerful solos, occasionally juxtaposed with a slower, more subdued sound. They lack the musical sophistication of bands like Porcupine Tree, but the simplicity of their songs are part of what makes them so powerful. Song structures are pretty typical and the lyrics can seem somewhat random; they are clearly alluding to something, but lack the sophistication to express it. Nevertheless the album has some incredibly strong lyrics which are at times deep and always enjoyable.
As I said at the start of this review, Locked Out from the Inside is probably my favourite album of 2009, simply because it is so easy to listen to and is yet something far more than a collection of catchy tunes. There is a clear agenda expressed with the full force of the band’s indignation at the state of society. While their previous albums were very enjoyable, they had clear flaws. This one has its problems, but they are insignificant when compared to their album’s strength. In many ways this is a coming of age for Nine Black Alps (to use a horrible cliché), it’s just such a shame that they have not yet achieved the success that this and indeed their previous albums richly deserve.
My second album is Only Revolution by Biffy Clyro. Their previous album, Puzzle released in 2007, remains one of my favourite albums of all time. After such a brilliant and well received album, the follow up was always going to be tricky. When I heard ‘Mountains’ a year or so back I was pretty unimpressed; the singing style irritated me too much for me to be able to really enjoy the song.
Sadly this problem is not just indicative of Mountains, but a good three or four songs throughout the album, especially around the middle where songs such as Mountains and Born on a Horse reside. Fortunately the rest of the album avoids this issue and is actually very strong. There are clear similarities to Puzzle; an album which is listened to ad nauseam when I first bought it and have kept returning to ever since. The Captain in particular echoes strongly the brilliance of Puzzle. The album does differ from Puzzle in some places; it seems to have a lot more anger, and this expresses itself in a much heavier sound. Much like Locked Out from the Inside there is a clear sense of indignation in the album, however it’s not always clear exactly where it’s aimed.
Puzzle had some truly superb lyrics and Only Revolutions is no different. Biffy Clyro have a much different style from Nine Black Alps; their songs are more sophisticated and complex. This is not to say that they’re any better, but the lyrics tend to be far more satisfying when given greater scrutiny. Songs like God & Satan for example contain some truly brilliant lyrics. Similarly the music has a little more to offer than Nine Black Alps. Sometimes the slightly more ambitious music gets in the way a little and makes the songs somewhat too obscure and intangible to be really appreciated. Disappointingly the complexity can detract, rather than add to the album.
Overall, while Only Revolution is a very good album, it fails to capture the genius of Puzzle. It is at times misguided and the sound of Simon Neil’s voice grates too much for this to be one of those albums that you just keep playing. We should not judge the album too harshly simply on the strength of its predecessor; it is very good album and well worth buying, but it has too many glaring flaws to be on the same level as Puzzle or indeed Locked Out from in Inside.
There are a couple of things regarding what actually makes for good music that I have been thinking about recently that I wanted to talk about here, but didn’t want to over burden this entry with yet more when it is easily long enough as it is. I will be putting those thought into writing at some point in the next few weeks depending on what else comes up. In the mean time buy both of the albums reviewed today, they are well worth it.