When writing about Biffy Clyro, it's easy to fall into a retrospective. No matter how you spin it, the band's heyday is likely behind them, regardless of whether you're a pre-Puzzle fan or part of the cohort that elevated Only Revolutions to double platinum. Despite the persistent following resulting in respectable chart performance and high profile headline gigs, one could argue that Biffy's 2010s were a masterclass in squandering momentum. Opposites arrived late, overwrought and insecure. Ellipsis was the start of a new producer triptych, and followed in the footsteps of Blackened Sky and Puzzle as a comparatively shaky establishing of a new sonic direction. Would Opus 8 similarly mirror the prior second instalments in their respective trilogies and be the high point of pop monster Biffy?
Frankly, A Celebration of Endings turned out about as well as I could have hoped for. The album retains the most promising elements of the band-producer chemistry of Ellipsis while adding some of the playfulness of the movie soundtrack side project Biffy released in 2019. You've got contemplative Balance, Not Symmetry style piano balladry ("Space"), a stab at millennial pop ("Instant History") and the obligatory strummed acoustic ballad ("Opaque"), but the predominant styling is guitar-driven rock. That's also where the bulk of the highlights reside. "North of No South" explores kooky meters, dynamic shifts and register jumps culminating in a snippet of surprising C-tuned heaviness. "The Champ" ditches the piano for a seemingly one-off appearance of a mildly quirky riff, which then keeps popping back up in the background of the song's tonal shifts before reemerging fully as part of the reference-laden outro. The sunny earworm of "Tiny Indoor Fireworks" set in a simple jangly guitar land, the haunting earworm of "Worst Type of Best Possible" periodically weaving a crushed intro motif into cleaner balladry. The journeying old-school romp "End Of", rolling out discordant feedback yelps, tritones and a harpsichord.
The slightly disparate material is aurally unified by a rich production job. Everything sounds very full and saturated, in no small part due to omnipresent thick guitar lines (even making their way to the background of "Instant History") and lush background orchestration. You get stuff like strings ("The Champ"), nondescript percussive clicks ("The Pink Limit"), synth whooshes ("Worst Type of Best Possible"), claps ("Tiny Indoor Fireworks") and the return of Ellipsis's tactical layered clipping ("North of No South") that helps soup things up. All this comes together in "Cop Syrup" with its beautiful evolving extended interlude making perfect use of the enhanced orchestration and a particularly elated drum performance, while the bookend sections are the most aggressive material major label Biffy has laid down. Unfortunately the song is not without its flaws - the heavy parts don't manage to retain the organic feel of "Balance, Not Symmetry", sounding a bit studious. Still, the material at hand doesn't really dip below a certain level of quality, and even album dud "The Pink Limit" has some engaging vocal harmonies and a promising instrumental outro.
The album's main shortcoming stems from how indebted it is to the past. The problem extends beyond the aforementioned obligatory "Machines" acoustic ballad progeny, with a lot of the highlights musically referencing material from Biffy's most successful period. The stabs opening "North of No South" may not include strings, but they're still descended from the intro of perennial career highlight "Living Is a Problem Because Everything Dies". The skittering pre-chorus of "Tiny Indoor Fireworks" bears resemblance to a similarly jumpy guitar line from "Bubbles". While more tonally reminiscent of independent material, "End Of" is akin to "The Golden Rule" with regards to energy and flow. It's a common pitfall to try to wink at your audience via musical constructs that have worked in the past, but it's a dangerous game to play as if the new material doesn't trump the original, then you end up looking derivative. This is the case most of the time here, with the only victor being "Cop Syrup" and its rectifying of whatever "Stingin' Belle" was trying to be, and would need to be addressed if the band wanted to craft a genuine career highlight.
All in all, A Celebration of Endings manages to keep the recently reignited spark alive and provides a solid entry into the band's discography. After a few albums of various explorations, Biffy lands in a sweet spot of guitar presence and layered orchestration. The melodies are genuinely enjoyable, the quirks plentiful yet organic (compare the intro of "Weird Leisure" to the interlude of "Animal Style"). Knowing them, they won't stay here long. The very exploratory nature that got them flirting with accessibility, leading to Only Revolutions, subsequently got them to set sail for new grounds rather than cater to their gathered fanbase and keep cloning their triumph. That's a pity, as I'm quite fond of this incarnation of their sound. Hopefully the way in which they integrated their moments of dissonance here is transferable to whatever lies ahead.