With no little skill and precision, and rarely any shirts, Kilmarnock’s Biffy Clyro have been navigating the sonic hinterland between melodic radio rock and twisted hardcore for over two decades. Matt Cardle’s 2010 X Factor rewrite of “Many of Horror” exposed their crossover potential and albums such as 2013’s Opposites saw them master the balance to festival-headlining effect. But the lead track from this ninth album, “Instant History”, suggested they’d drifted too far into the gravity of the populist black hole currently consuming alternative music. EDM boyband rock? Et tu, Biffy?
Thankfully, it’s the only blatant chart-bait here. A Celebration of Endings may be short on soaring epics like “Black Chandelier”, “Mountains” or “Biblical”, but it certainly proves that Biffy’s gourmet recipe mix of gloss and grime hasn’t gone stale.
Opener “North of No South” manages to make a visceral vision of a godless world (“there’s nothing above us, below us are only corpses”) sound Cowell compatible. “Worst Type of Best Possible” smothers the slickest brand of drivetime hard rock in riffs of pure magma. And soporific soft rock ballad “Space” gives way to the brutal bottom-end assault of “End Of”, which is Underworld’s Guinness advert if, rather than white horses, the waves had turned into motorbikes.
Since opening their 2007 breakthrough album Puzzle with the sound of a symphony orchestra fighting itself to the death in some kind of Wagner Games, Biffy have prided themselves on pushing the edges of hard rock. Here they’re more subtle about it, lacing the future rock of “Tiny Indoor Fireworks” with a New York new wave jangle and building album highlight “The Champ” from an ornate chamber orchestra intro into a compulsive rumble that leaps the chasm between ELO and Muse.
Much of the album’s real shock and savagery is lyrical. After dealing with issues of depression, self-harm, animalistic derangement and a touch of reefer madness on 2016’s Ellipsis, singer Simon Neil intended this follow-up to celebrate the benefits of change: witness him supporting a friend through cocaine addiction on “Weird Leisure”. Pandemics and politics, however, have given the album a darker tone. On “The Champ” Neil confronts xenophobic heartlessness with the 2015 photo of child refugee Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish shore; on “Tiny Indoor Fireworks” he laments the collapse of the socialist “revolution”. “The Pink Limit” might be formulaic storm-cloud rock, but as a metaphorical blend of an acrimonious relationship with the horrors of the capitalist war machine, it’s among their most sophisticated statements yet.
By the final “Cop Syrup” Neil’s lost it with 2020 entirely, screaming “f*** everybody!” over slabs of rap rock mayhem, which bizarrely morph into an orchestral prog section that could be a reheated leftover from Genesis’ “Supper’s Ready”. It’s symbolic of an album that soothes, shakes and surprises at every turn.