When in October 2009 they began their project of putting out a single every two weeks, Ash joined the ranks of artists who have experimented with alternative methods of release in a bid to escape the prevailing trends of the declining record industry. They can now be seen in a similar light to those artists who have released albums for free; the differences being firstly that Ash have asked for money for the bulk of the A-Z project’s material, and secondly because the rolling single format has made Ash demand consistency from themselves. Consequently A-Z Vol. 1, which collected the first twelve singles, was nothing short of a tour de force; and whilst it rarely quite reaches those heady stratospheres again, Vol. 2 is also a deeply worthy disc.
Oddly enough, the A-Z project has ended up taking on some somewhat album-like qualities as it has matured. This second volume echoes the second half of many albums in the sense that it contains slightly more challenging and ambitious material than the first volume displayed. A-Z Vol. 1 contained a few such tracks – not least the Muse-esque ‘Joy Kicks Darkness’ released right near the start of the project – but they become almost the norm here. Take ‘Spheres’ for example, in which Tim Wheeler proclaims his readiness to “break the chains of oppression keeping down [his] soul” while a recurring piano phrase duels with some of the project’s most intensely hammering drums. If that six minutes seems expansive, it’s nothing compared to the enormous ten-minute instrumental “Sky Burial” which reminds me vaguely of the hugely ambitious closer Snow Patrol chose for their last record in 2008.
The more accessible tracks display a certain amount of justifiable exhaustion on Ash’s part. ‘Mind Control’ is a clear bid to maintain Ash’s reputation for cracking choruses, but its repeated mantra of “what the fuck is going on?” rings a little hollow compared to the best that the first volume had to offer. Much more successful is the gloriously infectious ‘Physical World’, a bouyant swipe at electronic communication married to appropriately organic handclaps and a tidy solo. Elsewhere, “Embers” impresses with its frenetic, tongue-twisting chorus, even if it lacks a little of the depth of its equivalent songs on Vol. 1.
Although there are signs that Ash have tired to a certain extent over the length of this project, the amount of vitality that remains is still staggering. In sum, Ash have completely vindicated both themselves and their almost alarmingly ambitious project. The thought of other bands attempting this kind of thing is an incredibly exciting one – even if it catches on, I’d wager that it could be some time before another band tops what Ash have achieved here. A-Z Vol. 2 may not be quite essential in its own right, but it is essential as part of one of the most enticing rock spectacles of the last several years.