Biffy Clyro ‘Ellipsis’ – Review

20 Jul

Biffy Clyro are a heroic rock band; they dream big but retain an unguarded intimacy that few small bands possess. It’s rare to find a band who sell out arenas with such a big, beating heart and so many ideas. ‘Ellipsis’ is their seventh album, and they consider it to be their best to date. It’s the follow up to 2013’s ‘Opposites’, a grand double album that documented the breakdown, and reparation, of lead singer Simon Neil’s marriage. Under the guidance of Garth Richardson, that record was meticulously produced and epic in scope and ambition. Knowing it would be impossible to venture any further in that particular direction, ‘Ellipsis’ finds them pulling the table cloth from under that precisely laid out table set up.

At least, that’s the narrative the band have given us. It may well have been the intention and the impetus but that isn’t what I hear when listening to ‘Ellipsis.’ If anything this sounds more eclectic and more ambitious than ‘Opposites’ and If it doesn’t quite scale the dizzy heights of that record then it isn’t for want of trying. Sonically, it’s a bracing album. The guitars are scuzzy, the vocals are rough but drums have been processed, bass lines have been distorted and the synths are used to create atmosphere. The band are toying with different genres and pulling techniques from different stylistic traditions. We get pitch distorted vocals, trap beats, grungy feedback, country rock arrangements and some of their popiest melodies yet.

As on ‘Opposites’, Biffy are genuinely daring here. They write abut personal crisis in a brutally honest and direct way. There isn’t a unifying theme as there was on that album but Simon consistently sounds as naked and exposed as he appears on the album’s cover. On the delicate standout ‘Rearrange’ he sings in the bare falsetto of a man who has ‘God Only Knows’ tattooed on to his chest. Ive always admired the way in which he creates a veil with abstract metaphors before pulling the veil down with a blunt turn of phrase. Here it’s ‘I’m broken and I need your help’, and ‘I’ve got a lot of rage and I’m struggling with ways to control it’. These are beautiful, stripped down moments of honest vulnerability that pepper between the heavier songs.

The album is a sleight eleven songs long and there’s a pleasing lack of filler. It starts strongly with odd lead single ‘Wolves of Winter’ and only gets better as it marches on. They missed a trick not releasing ‘Friends and Enemies’ as the lead single. With its big room drums, choir and Bastile baiting melody, it has crossover hit written all over it. It’s unlike anything In the Biffy canon. ‘Medicine’ and ‘Howl’ are more traditional “Mon the Bif” anthems (in fact ‘Medicine’ probably skirts a little too closely to 2009’s ‘God and Satan’) and somewhat make a mockery of the band’s initial claim that ‘Elipsis’ would be a return to their raw, unfiltered hard rock roots. Actually, the album sounds clean and modern, with a commercial mix that perhaps plays it a little safe. For all their pre-album mutterings, this is without a doubt Biffy Clyro’s stab at a polished studio album.

There are still the usual Biffy trademarks, they’re just occasionally diluted. We still get some unexpected time signatures, layered backing vocals and unusual imagery however the band seem more interested in trying new ideas than in using tried and tested measures. But by now Biffy have teased out almost all the possibilities of their impressive, but limited nonetheless, range. Even the wilder songs on this album (the borderline humorous country-rock ‘Small Wishes’ and the everything but the kitchen sink maximalism of ‘Wolves of Winter’) feel quite familiar, as if they’re variations on songs we’ve heard before. Biffy are, inescapably, a band who have been making music together for nearly two decades. This is, unavoidably, their seventh album. Their past is a shadow they can’t outrun, however much they may want to – as such ‘Ellipsis’ is not the tearaway album the band would like it to be. But as a point of comparison, last year Muse released their seventh album, the tired, deflated and repetitive ‘Drones’. That dull dead end is a fate Biffy Clyro have done well to avoid. ‘Ellipsis’ is a more daring, more revealing and more enjoyable record than the seventh album by a massive arena rock band has any right to be. Mon the Bif.

7.5/10

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