Ash - Kablammo!
By no means a perfect comeback, but there is much to admire about Downpatrick's most famous sons' 'back to basics' first album in almost a decade
It doesn't seem so long ago that Ash were declaring themselves done with the rote conventions of the music industry. When Downpatrick’s most famous sons announced that their album Twilight of the Innocents was to be their last, they assured fans that although they would remain a band, their destiny rested outside the traditional format.
Scenting a change in the zeitgeist, the trio — frontman Tim Wheeler, bassist Mark Hamilton and drummer Rick McMurray — set themselves on the path of releasing only singles from that point on. 'We've been one of the best singles bands of the last two decades,' stated Wheeler, modestly. 'I’m excited to push this claim further by dedicating ourselves wholly to the art of the single for the digital age.'
That was in June 2007. Nearly eight years later, Ash, who are still in their thirties, have abandoned their final frontier’s tricky business model and have gone back to basics.
2009’s A–Z Series of 26 singles in 26 weeks carried the whiff of novelty dressed as innovation, and Wheeler, of course, produced solo work in the hiatus period, including Lost Domain, an ode to his late father. Now, with the release of Kablammo!, Ash appear ready to step down from the digital plane.
Financed via crowdfunding, it is, presumably, free of unnecessary meddling and this strutting, largely spare reframing of the group’s initial output — during which their status as denizens of the Britpop era always appeared offset by a blazing sound and, dare it be said, black-as-tar Ulster edge — feels as urgent as it does fresh.
They may have been away for nearly a decade but Kablammo! is undoubtedly born from Ash’s earliest formulas.
First single 'Cocoon' blasts out like a sharp shot of caffeine, a stylish, driving reminder of the forcefulness that defined Ash in the halcyon years. Melodic, punk-tinged, the track invades the sense, its frenetic drumming and abrasive twang offset by Wheeler’s typically sweet falsetto. ‘Sealed in a second skin,’ he sings, ‘No daylight filters in.’
A stomping call to arms, 'Let’s Ride' is fairly standard fare: a song that says little but sounds quite good doing so, in a pleasant, poppy sort of way. Later on, 'Free' registers as a forgettable ballad. It slows the pace set by an upbeat opening, sputtering somewhere in the large space between post-rock and the bland tropes of modern indie pop.
'Go! Fight! Win!', reclaims some lost ground thanks to its catchy refrain and muscular confidence, all thumping beats, swaggering guitars and replete with the energy that those three exclamation points imply.
Wheeler’s voice has not lost its refined purity, thank goodness, and while 'Moondust' — infused with strings and some heartfelt lyrics — is unlikely to thrill the band’s more cynical fanbase, the song does serve as a reminder that Ash possess an admirable range and the backbone to test it. 'From Eternity' covers similar, if less saccharine, ground.
More impressive is 'Evil Knievel', a purely instrumental slice of winking American rock that shoots straight from the opening titles of a Tarantino film, likely one decorated with kitsch furniture and centred in a faded Californian dive bar.
The remaining standouts are surely 'Hedonism' and 'Bring Back the Summer', both representing upticks in style without compromising on those elements so important to Ash’s philosophy. The delicate latter feels plucky, even old fashioned, though Wheeler still courses through its echoey aspirations.
'Hedonism', meanwhile, comes girded by a gorgeous, lilting riff, at once hopeful and anthemic. It is perhaps Kablammo!’s tastiest treat and proof that this collective is at its best when lean, hungry and itching to prove a point.
Ash have by no means rendered a perfect comeback but there is little here to dislike and much to admire. Instead, Wheeler, Hamilton and McMurray benefited from their time away and are ready once again, one should assume, to concentrate on the solid fundamentals.
Kablammo! is out now and available to buy from Ash's website. The band play the Limelight, Belfast on Monday, June 8.