1977 seems a long time ago. Not just in the 30 years that have passed since then, but also since the debut album from some shirty Northern Ireland indie-rock outfit called Ash was released. The Star Wars infatuation, the girls from mars and the Flying V all captured the hearts and minds of 1990’s Brits. You could say Ash have struggled since then to reach the consistency and urgency of that debut. They’re one of those bands who you end up knowing more songs by then you realise. The release of their singles collection is still one of the must-own best-of records. With their recent announcement that this could be their last album release, is it the perfect swan-song or good riddance?
It starts promisingly with I Started A Fire, Tim Wheelers typically fraught vocals pining over the thrashing guitars and anthemic chorus. The catchy riffs of old are here as well as an urgency that’s been sadly lacking in their recent output. You Can’t Have It All continues this early promise. The chunky drum beat dominates the light riffs that ring around it before it descends into familiar Ash pop-rock territory with an almost Adam Ant chant to bulk it out. They always had an edge and presence but also had an ear for a catchy tune and the heady heights of the pop charts. However, it slips a bit after this. The familiar three chord stomp of Blacklisted is throw-away album filler with nothing vaguely interested happening in it’s three minutes. Then there’s the recent single Polaris with it’s piano and strings which bring to mind Coldplay and Feeder rather than the Ash of old. It’s a brave stab at their usual ballad, but it lacks any passion or pace. It just plods along. Strings do not equate to feeling. End of the World is another try but misses the mark again. There are a couple of highlights to light up the second half of the album. Dark and Stormy sees the band mix things up a bit, maybe nothing original, but Wheelers voice isn’t as strained and the guitars weave a more intricate pattern whilst the chorus arcs and swoops through the song. The title track is also nicely anthemic, maybe too many strings for my liking, but it feels like it was an attempt to try something more epic.
The loss of Chartlotte Hatherley has stripped Ash back to their three pronged attack, though you’d never guess it. Most of the songs here are drenched in stacks of production. Strings, sirens and layered guitars all make an appearance to take the edge off proceedings. Yes, Ash have grown up, but if this is the result then send them back to school. Perhaps their move to release individual tracks is a good idea, they’ve always struggled to spread their ideas over a full album. If they released the highlights of this album then maybe we’d have something more interesting, as it is, this is merely OK.