In the carefree world of 2019, Biffy Clyro had a wealth of options ahead of them when making their #1 album A Celebration of Endings. Aiming to maximise their creativity, they opted to spend many months in Los Angeles, collaborating again with producer Rich Costey - a decision that offered the prospect of working in some of the world’s best studios as well as respite from the Scottish drizzle. And when the chance to add strings at Abbey Road arose… Well, how can you say no?
18 months later, everything had changed. Now the three life-long friends would be found spending a total of just six weeks in their rehearsal room in a farmhouse close to their homes, recording in Scotland for the first time having traded one West Coast for another. In order to turn their modest space into as close to a fully-fledged studio as possible, they ordered a load of equipment. Meanwhile rhythm section brothers James and Ben Johnston rolled up their sleeves and braved an avalanche of splinters to DIY the space themselves. There would be no live brass or strings, but in the spirit of making the most of their location: why not add loops sampled from the tractor outside or the adjacent milk machine?
Of course, we all know how this change of circumstance came to be. But their new release The Myth of the Happily Ever After is not a COVID concept album. The Myth is a homegrown project that represents a reaction to A Celebration and a rapid emotional response to the turmoil of the past year. It is the ying to the yang of A Celebration, the other-side-of-a-coin, a before-and-after comparison: their early optimism of 2020 having been brought back to earth with a resounding thud. It’s the product of a strange and cruel time in our lives, but one that ultimately reinvigorated Biffy Clyro.
“This is a reaction to A Celebration of Endings,” begins songwriter / vocalist / guitarist Simon Neil. “This album is a real journey, a collision of every thought and emotion we’ve had over the past eighteen months. There was a real fortitude in ‘A Celebration’ but in this record we’re embracing the vulnerabilities of being a band and being a human in this twisted era of our lives. Even the title is the polar opposite. It’s asking, do we create these narratives in our own minds to give us some security when none of us know what’s waiting for us at the end of the day? It’s like standing in the shit, thinking, what have we got here? And what can I make from this?”
Not that The Myth came about quite that easily. An outwardly amiable character, Simon has often been open about his struggles with mental health. So when lockdown grounded all touring plans for the then foreseeable future, he was cast into a pit of despair. Not that there’s any self-pity (“So many people have been through much worse than us”), but when your way of life stops almost overnight with no clear sign of a return it’s going to pose dark questions.
“We haven’t spent more than a month at home in fifteen years, maybe even longer. So when it stops, you think, what do you do? Will touring ever come back?” Gradually he kept himself busy enough to be distracted, playing acoustic live streams, recording guest vocals for artists as varied as Architects and Laura Mvula, and working on his side projects.
The trio went into the studio with the intention of completing some unfinished songs from A Celebration, but instead The Myth took over as it started to take shape late in 2020. Traditionally, 90% of Biffy songs have been written in Scotland, but there had always a mental block when it came to recording there, as if they needed “the vision and ambition of being somewhere a bit more glamorous.” Eventually the entire project was written and recorded in a ten-mile radius making it, as Simon jokes, “Our first full-on tartan album!”
The idea of a new record began to become a reality when he wrote ‘Existed’, an elegant expression of self-doubt and a longing for forgiveness that redefines the sonics of the band’s catalogue of vulnerable slowburners. What followed was an entirely new way of working, a test which prove to be both a liberating and grounding experience.
“We knew we could make something lo-fi, but our challenge was to make something as big as the records we’ve done at Ocean Way or AIR. We did it in the simplest, most naive and beautiful way that we’ve ever recorded. We would’ve never jumped over that hurdle unless we had to, but thank goodness we did. It has made us really excited at the possibility of recording in Scotland again in the future.”
Primarily constructed around soft synths sampled from Simon’s voice, opening track ‘DumDum’ is an even bigger departure than ‘Existed’ as it scales up from sparse beauty to a marauding crescendo. And ‘Slurpy Slurpy Sleep Sleep’ takes that experimental streak further, its unsettling vocal loop, manic thrash leanings and choral vocal harmony breakdown making for just as audacious a closer as ‘Cop Syrup’ from A Celebration. It also represents one of a selection of “easter eggs” or “turns of phrase” that subtly complement and contrast the two records.
But there are flashes of old school Biffy too, especially with the feral anger of ‘A Hunger In Your Haunt’, the cataclysmic climactic riffs in ‘Unknown Male 01’, the arena-scaled drama of ‘Errors In The History of God’ and the sheer catchiness of ‘Witch’s Cup’.
The album’s themes reveal themselves a little more with each listen. A recurring concept is the power of personal convictions, which have taken on an almost religious fervour via the echo chambers of social media and news platforms. But that idea also has the nuance to rise above contrasting sides of an argument. As Simon affirms, “People close doors by being convinced that their idea is right and shutting off any conversation. But that’s not going to help us come out of this situation. We need to be more open. We grow by being together, we don’t grow by only feeding ourselves what we want to see and what we want to believe.”
Elsewhere the album spans everything from gaslighting (‘Denier’) to Simon’s interest in the ultimate devotion of cults (‘Witch’s Cup’) and the beautiful failure of a Japanese racehorse (‘Haru Urara’). Its emotional heart is found in ‘Unknown Male 01’, which reflects on friends who have taken their own lives.
“When you lose people that you love deeply and have been a big part of your life, it can make you question every single thing about your own life,” he says. “Like a lot of creative people, I struggle with dark thoughts. If you’re that way inclined you realise you’re staring at darkness, but you don't want to succumb. Those moments don’t stop. As the song says, ‘The devil never leaves.’ There’s never a day where you wake up thinking, ‘I feel great, it won’t cross me ever again’.”
Fortunately, the challenge of the past year “manifested itself in music rather than anything more destructive.” The experience forced Biffy to consider the fundamentals of why they do what they do. “Is this something that brings me joy? If I’m stuck at home singing the songs, does that bring me joy? Yes! As long as I can hang out with my two best buddies. It was a reminder that we’re really lucky to get to do what we do, even when things are simple.”
The process of creating The Myth not only simplified Biffy Clyro’s creative process, but it also forced them to break the album/tour/album cycle. “I like it when life is simple,” Simon pauses before signing off with a roar of laughter, “but I can’t wait for it to get complicated again!”