Album Review: Biffy Clyro – A Celebration of Endings

[Warner; 2020]

Say what you will about Biffy Clyro, but the Scottish band don’t do half measures. The Glaswegian trio have been flying the flag for idiosyncratic rock music for more than two decades at this point, and each chapter in the band’s story has been written on their own terms. Fully embracing their mainstream breakthrough last time out on 2016’s strikingly immediate Ellipsis – their second chart-topping record after 2013’s gleefully eclectic double album Opposites – the band still owe a lot to their early work. Blackened Sky, The Vertigo of Bliss and Infinity Land laid the foundations as the band knocked out three albums in three years before their ascent began in earnest with the bruised, emotional anthems of 2007’s Puzzle.

Although they are scantly represented in the band’s current setlists, the band’s opening triptych of albums has resonated through more recent efforts; last year’s soundtrack album Balance, Not Symmetry threw a host of ideas at the wall to see what stuck, and it’s clearly provided inspiration for this album, formerly known as Opus 8: A Celebration of Endings.

The advance singles signposted that A Celebration of Endings would be a diverse record, and that has indeed turned out to be the case, with the band content to throw stylistic curveballs just when the listener has a handle on their sound. It’s all over the place, and all the better for it.

Opener “North of No South” is a riff-driven juggernaut that, via a harmony-laden bridge, culminates in one of the heaviest moments in their catalogue. James Johnston’s bass is the star of the show on “Worst Type of Best Possible”, holding the song together as it crests to a goosebump-inducing post-rock peak. The band put their pop smarts to use on “Instant History” and “Tiny Indoor Fireworks”, before playing with song structure and dynamics on “End Of” and “Weird Leisure”, the latter marked by manic shifts in tempo and time signature while an instantly memorable, needling riff provides an anchor.

The stuttering 6/4 verses of “The Pink Limit”, driven by Ben Johnston’s inventive drumming, swell into a waltz-time chorus that takes a sharp left turn for the song’s soaring instrumental coda. “Space” sits at the heart of the album, a gorgeous lighters-aloft moment that deserves to be recognised as one of their best ballads – while being an outlier on the record in that it sticks resolutely to convention. It’s nothing like the songs either side of it – of course the 11-song set sounds like many different versions of the band, sometimes within the same song.

Simon Neil is in fine voice throughout, breaking out his falsetto on the lushly-arranged penultimate track “Opaque” and nearing the top of his range as easily as he belts the chorus of alt-rock stormer “The Champ”. The lyrics of the latter are emblematic of the record’s optimistic, future-facing outlook in keeping with its title; taking shots at rose-tinted nostalgia and standing firm against divisive forces: “Don’t give me that bullshit catchphrase, ‘It was better in my day’.”

In terms of scope, this album is a cross between The Vertigo of Bliss and Balance, Not Symmetry, the band showcasing an experimental bent and constantly mixing things up. For all their success, Biffy Clyro have never been particularly interested in hitting on a signature sound, and this album is a gutsy offering that proves that. The trio delight in taking risks in a way that few rock bands on a major label do, and A Celebration of Endings is a wide-ranging record – even when they’re operating within an accessible framework.

The album is given a fittingly out-there send-off in the form of declamatory closing track “Cop Syrup”, whose jagged musical passages call back to Infinity Land’s most intense moments, before careening into strings-drenched euphoria – conducted here and elsewhere by Rob Mathes, whose orchestral additions add further colour to an album that paints with bold and bright shades. The song ultimately brings the record crashing to a halt, its closing cry of “Fuck everybody! Woo!” summing up the ethos behind it. On A Celebration of Endings, Biffy Clyro couldn’t care less about perception or expectation; to quote “Instant History”, this is the sound that they make, and they’re going all-in – no half measures.