The Age of Innocence – Biffy Clyro’s The Vertigo of Bliss turns eighteen

The cover for Biffy Clyro's The Vertigo of Bliss - with artistic lens flare
The cover for Biffy Clyro’s The Vertigo of Bliss – artistic lens flare photographer’s own

When I turned 36 recently, I was dimly aware of the symmetry of this being eighteen twice: eighteen years since I turned eighteen. Fortunately I think something distracted me at the time, and I didn’t spend too long dwelling on this curious occurrence. 

I was reminded of it again not long afterwards, however, when I saw that Biffy Clyro’s second album The Vertigo of Bliss had just turned eighteen. Golly.

There’s something about release dates – of films, music or the dates of significant news events and so on – that stick out as milestones, particularly when they are not just in living memory, but are themselves genuinely memorable events in one’s life.

The release of The Vertigo of Bliss was definitely a memorable event for me.

And, as is so often the case with music, listening to that album today provides for a most uncanny time-travelling experience as the memories flood back with each note.

2003. It’s easy to overlook just how long ago 2003 was. I went over my diary entries from earlier in that year, wading through references to seeing Biffy Clyro play live: eight times in total, up to June 2003. In March 2003 I wrote an entry about seeing the band and then getting my photos back a few days later. Boy.

The trip down memory lane continues.

My first exposure to The Vertigo of Bliss was via a leak. When it was leaked to me, it wasn’t through illegal peer-to-peer downloads – was Kazaa the current method of music piracy at the time? – but rather via a CD-R made for me by… Oh, let’s call her an industry insider, who knew how much I was obsessed with the band. The CD she’d burned was given to me with strict instructions not to make copies or put it online – and I had no intention to. This was far too precious. 

Listening to the CD itself was initially quite confusing: to begin with, I was convinced that my friend had got her handwritten tracklisting wrong. I’d heard the couple of singles which had already been released ahead of the album’s own release, and the first few seconds of each of those tracks as I eagerly skipped through didn’t sound right to me. It turned out the band had recorded new intros to some tracks, and – along with the fact that I had in my hands not just the full track listing, with full titles very few others knew about, but the album itself… God, it was all so exciting.

The excitement of possessing something this totemic ahead of time was more than enough for me. I had no desire to share it or risk my friend’s confidence in me by copying it. The anticipation for the follow-up to their debut Blackened Sky was high amongst Biffy Clyro’s small but fervent fanbase.  And, in all honesty, I felt a part enough of that relatively tight-knit community at the time, that I understood how important it was not to share stuff like that. In what was then a reasonably small scene, it would have been pretty obvious where the porous gaps in the defensive wall were, and I definitely didn’t want to land anyone in hot water. 

Another similar leak had happened in the earlier run-up to the album’s release.

After a non-Biffy gig in Islington in January of 2003 (wherever the legendary venue using the ‘Marquee’ brand was at that given moment in time), the friend I alluded to above and I bumped into her contact on the inside. And he had something exciting in his possession he wanted to share with us: earlier that day he’d been sent the final approved artwork for The Ideal Height, which was to be the lead single from Biffy’s eagerly-anticipated second album.  And that was pretty exciting.

And so he… well, he got out his entire laptop, obviously, because, well, 2003, as I keep saying. He then rested the Mac on his knee and logged in, to open the Mail software and bring up the email he’d been sent earlier.

The image (NSFW*) he brought up on his screen was an illustration of a lady in knee-high leather boots and very small pants, provocatively bearing her crotch to the viewer.

My friend and I were blown away – this kind of image was just the sort of thing you’d expect someone to excitedly show you on their laptop screen, perhaps, but much less likely the sort of thing you might expect a band to put on the cover of their new single… But as if to prove its legitimacy, there on the image was the band’s name, along with the title of the first single off the new album. This was to be the cover of Biffy’s new single. Crikey. 

* It seems silly to mark this as NSFW when I embedded the VoB album cover at the top, but hey.

It was amazing for me not just because of the stylistic avenue they were going down – this album and its singles all feature artwork by Italian artist Milo Manara – but because this was the first new art direction I’d seen for a band I’d been deeply into for eighteen months by that point, and so it was fascinating for me to suddenly comprehend that a band could evolve in this way – would they continue to use the same iconic logo, for example? Even seeing the new typeface used on this cover was interesting to me.

In retrospect, this kind of stuff is now obvious: the cycle of albums and art directions and logos and ‘looks’ evolving with each new album… But at the time, Biffy were amongst the first bands I’d actively followed this closely for this amount of time, and so I lapped up every interview and photo shoot and gig that I could. 

But back to the album.

The Vertigo of Bliss was released on 16 June 2003 and it was pretty huge. Not so much in terms of its impact on the charts or mainstream radio of the time, but at more than an hour long it packed in a vast range of moods and styles and ideas.

Where their previous release Blackened Sky had allowed the band to take a collection of songs to a decent studio and a fantastic producer for the first time – resulting in what remains a stunning debut – on this album the band had a million new ideas they wanted to get down, and they were given the space to do so, and some well-placed strings to give those ideas wings.

Eighteen years on, the album sounds as crisp and fresh as it ever did. When listening through headphones there are tiny, twinkly little moments stacked cheek-by-jowl with immense walls of sound that still astound me in their vertiginous, cinematic scale.

Blackened Sky had already captured this element of the band’s style well enough, but on The Vertigo of Bliss, this quiet-loud dynamic that Biffy were and are known for was given the range it had been searching for. 

To hear those moments of dynamism today still takes me back to the first time I saw Biffy in May 2001.

I was days short of turning sixteen and had gone to see Bristol rockers Sunna at the Mean Fiddler. They’d had some success with a video on MTV2 featuring BEES for their single I’m Not Trading, and a couple of friends and I wanted to go and see them live.

When my friend Kelly heard we were going to this gig, she warned us that we would be “killed in the moshpit.” We weren’t – but the three bands on the line-up were known for big, heavy riffs and loud guitars, and with a passionate crowd in attendance, there was set to be a special atmosphere.

Sunna’s two support acts were Londoners Hell Is For Heroes – who would go on to produce a fantastic debut album in Neon Handshake – and Biffy Clyro all the way down from Glasgow.

HIFH put on a memorable opening slot – I was quite taken by what I understood to be the shyness of the band’s lead singer who pulled his hoodie all the way up, hiding his face, but then erupting into bombastic vocals to match the band’s soaring choruses. I Can Climb Mountains remains a strong favourite track of that era.

My friends and I were pressed up at the front, and this was by far the closest I’d ever been to a band performing live. As such, I had no idea about any of the stuff that went into live music performances, or even really the instruments used to make the music I enjoyed. 

From this vantage point at the edge of the stage, we suddenly had this front-row view of all the gear that makes the music happen, and it didn’t take me long to spot the connection between Biffy’s quiet bits and loud bits – and the pedals Simon Neil was stomping on to make that change happen. Guitar effects pedals. Of course. It was a revelation.

So I still hear in those moments of quiet-to-loud on Biffy’s early albums that pedal-stomping motion that makes Biffy go loud. And I love it. Takes me right back to the edge of that stage. 

I picked up a copy of Biffy’s first single 27 on 7″ from the merch stand that night (probably from a certain Neil), and the love affair had begun. I can’t even really remember Sunna’s performance, to be honest. But it was a seminal show for me, and regardless of how longlived my love of Sunna would be, I am just so glad I went and stumbled on Biffy (and HIFH!) way back then.

I caught a couple of Biffy shows on TV recently.

The very fact that twenty five years on from their formation – and twenty since I first saw them play – they are even still performing as a band just fills me with joy every single time. But the added fact that not only are they still together but are now, in fact, huge, is just amazing.

In some ways it’s inevitable – how could this band have been destined for anything other stadium-sized venues, or headlining international festivals?

But in other ways it seems stunning: this shy threesome producing jaggy, snake-like songs with time signatures hard to pick up on, and weird, obtuse lyrics.

And yet in the year of our lord 2021 I can turn the TV on and see sets recorded at Reading or Leeds, or a headline show from Glasgow – shows at which they thread a fascinating line between songs both brand new and fifteen years old (occasionally more).

What’s even more satisfying for fans who followed them round the country, often playing shows with the much-beloved Oceansize, is that two of that band are now permanent fixtures in the line-up, adding organs and guitars to the three-piece’s sound.

But above all, it’s still Simon, James and Ben – and Neil behind the scenes. And those time signatures are still weird, and the snakes are still jaggy.