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Friday, September 21, 2007

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Ash

Originally posted on Tuesday, April 3rd, 2007

Bio help from Walking Barefoot

There’s a long list of bands that were huge in England and the U.K. but never gained more than a small following in the United States. You’ve heard quite a bit about bands in the Seventies and Eighties, but what about bands that gained prominence in the Nineties? The coverage is scant, leaving a number of truly intriguing bands out of the picture. I’m talking Manic Street Preachers, Therapy?, Skunk Anansie, Supergrass and plenty of others. But Ash is a special case. How could a band be so heavily influenced by American music, only to never receive widespread acclaim in the U.S.?

Bassist Mark Hamilton and vocalist/guitarist Tim Wheeler were born in 1977 in the Northern Ireland town of Downpatrick. They started playing together in a band called Vietnam in 1989, but they broke up in 1992 when their drummer left. Playing with new drummer Rick McMurray, they christened the new band Ash. They were influenced by the kind of rock music not just invading American airwaves at the time, but Top of the Pops and the NME as well. Since this was the year of grunge’s peak in popularity, English bands like Suede and Blur were exceptions as Nirvana, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, and Pearl Jam ruled the pack. So it’s understandable how grunge’s influence is all over Ash’s first proper release.

Trailer (1994)

Released as a 7-song mini-album (and an 11-song full-length in America a year later), Trailer is a really dodgy and dated effort. The simplicity of grunge’s power chords and a distortion pedal lend themselves well to some really gruff songs with some semi-likeable melodies. But the saving grace comes in the form of two standout singles, “Jack Names the Planets” and “Petrol.” “Jack” has a superb chorus while “Petrol” has this ringing guitar line that easily gets stuck in your head.

Though Hamilton and McMurray were major parts of the band, Wheeler is definitely the strongest component here. With a voice that moves easily from warm and friendly to snide and bratty, Wheeler made for a very distinct frontman even this early in the game.

None of Trailer’s singles made it very high on the charts, but when two new singles were released in '95, Ash’s popularity quickly rose. “Kung Fu” and “Girl from Mars” showed remarkable improvement in the songwriting department. Snappier and even more tuneful than anything on Trailer, Ash was now out of grunge’s doldrums. Working with Owen Morris, the same producer who helmed Oasis’s second album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, their first proper album was a critical turning point.

1977 (1996)

As a tribute to the year Wheeler and Hamilton were born (as well as the first Star Wars film appearing in theaters), 1977 is essential listening for anyone hoping to understand Ash. Making good on the promise found on “Kung Fu” and “Girl from Mars,” the album shows a band coming into its own. Not only could they rock, but they could do so much more. It proved the band members had more records in their collection than certain titles from the Sub Pop, DGC and Caroline catalogs.

The band effortlessly walks through barn-burners that could send a small audience into a moshing frenzy as well as ballads that could unite an entire stadium in arms. “Lose Control” makes ample use of Wheeler’s wah-wah pedal as well as McMurray’s tight snare rolls.

The same applies to “Angel Interceptor” and “Darkside Lightside.” “Goldfinger” has shades of Oasis-styled rock complete with stops and starts between the verses and choruses. “I’d Give You Anything” is a bluesy glitter rock tune, but it’s followed by a subdued string-laced tune called “Gone the Dream.” “Lost in You” pinches its melody from Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night” while “Oh Yeah” has a feel perfect for waving a cigarette lighter in the air.

Every song here is a winner, and the album could easily be mistaken for a singles collection. In one of those planets-aligning moments, the band crafted a fine album, but one which would also cast a large shadow over future efforts. Reaching number one on the U.K. album charts, the band received some significant coverage in America as well. “Kung Fu” was featured on the soundtracks for Rumble in the Bronx and Angus and the videos for “Goldfinger” and “Girl from Mars” aired prominently on MTV’s 120 Minutes.

Playing all around the world, including U.S. dates with Stabbing Westward and Weezer, the band were certified superstars in their homeland. A live album recorded in Australia, Live at the Wireless, was even released. But a frequent conundrum is where to go after you’ve seen the top.

1997 began with the band expanding its lineup to a quartet. Former Nightnurse guitarist Charlotte Hatherley officially joined on second guitar and some of her first shows were the V97 festival and opening for U2 on the PopMart tour. Hatherley gave some major help to the band’s live sound since Wheeler’s guitar parts had long since morphed from just power chord changes.

A new track, “A Life Less Ordinary,” was released that year along with the film of the same name. Not a drastic departure from 1977’s style, but an ace track no less. Featuring Hatherley’s sweet backing vocals, along with guitars and keyboards, things looked promising for the band’s next album.

Nu-Clear Sounds (1998)

Once again produced by Owen Morris, Nu-Clear Sounds got a bum rap immediately upon its release. A commercial disappointment, the album was panned largely due to its rough production, abundance of dissonance and rather somber feel. Though it’s not the best Ash record to introduce someone to the band, I find it incredibly underrated.

Making this record wasn’t easy for the band. Wheeler had writer’s block and there was plenty of infighting going on. They cooked up a large amount of songs, from 1977-styled gems to noisier jams to spare ballads. The songs that made the final cut were indeed rougher, but no less captivating. “Wild Surf” is a happy little bopper, but there are spots where it sounds like they wanted to play “wrong” notes on purpose. Seventeen seconds in, the guitar lead hits some notes that just don’t sound right. This approach would be very evident on a couple of other tracks.

“Numbskull” and “Death Trip 21″ completely jettison the sugar and go for the abrasive. Augmented by a DJ scratching here and there, the songs befuddled those steeped in the ways of “Jack Names the Planets” and “Girl from Mars.” Though these were only two songs on an 11-track album, they left a bad taste in the mouths of people who seemingly overlooked the classic Ash rockers “Fortune Teller” and “Projects,” along with the pretty ballads “Folk Song,” “I’m Gonna Fall,” and “Aphrodite.” Nu-Clear Sounds is the band’s dark horse album.

Ash’s popularity was still strong in the band’s homeland and Japan, but exposure in Europe and the U.S. was scant. They switched U.S. labels, from Reprise to DreamWorks, then a privately-owned label catered towards career-minded artists like Elliott Smith and Rollins Band. Other than some airings of the “Jesus Says” video, the American version of Nu-Clear Sounds (with different artwork, a reordered tracklisting, four songs remixed by Butch Vig and “A Life Less Ordinary” as a bonus track) went virtually unnoticed outside of college radio and Sunday night specialty shows.

The band regrouped in 2000 to work on new songs at Wheeler’s parents’ home in Downpatrick. They played some new material live at one-off dates and even released a download-only single, “Warmer than Fire.” As a taste of their third album with Owen Morris, the song has a nice midtempo groove with no dissonance. But skepticism remained with people wondering what the hell happened to Ash. Once the new single “Shining Light” was released, more fans started coming around. Anticipation for the next Ash album grew from “meh” to “hell yeah!”

Free All Angels (2001)

Not to discredit Free All Angels (it’s the record I’d suggest checking out after 1977 for introductory purposes), but it’s like a cross between 1977 and Nu-Clear Sounds. The songs are much more polished and many of the tunes are sunny and happy.

“Burn Baby Burn” is in the pantheon of songs like “Girl from Mars” and “Petrol,” complete with a turbo-charged guitar solo by Hatherley. The experimentation the band tried out on Nu-Clear Sounds is further explored on tracks like “Candy” and “Submission.” “Submission” is a tad dodgy and annoying, but “Candy” successfully fuses a sample of the Walker Brothers’ rendition of “Make It Easy on Yourself” with a funky ballad groove.

There are some punky numbers here, like “Pacific Palisades,” “World Domination,” and “Nicole,” but there are some beautiful ballads as well. “Someday” and “Sometimes” are nice, but it’s the power ballad “There’s a Star” that helps the record’s second half stay afloat. Echoing the kind of instrumentation you hear in James Bond flicks like You Only Live Twice, the orchestra makes the song sound large. Luckily, the song is really good at the core as well.

With yet another U.S. label taking the reins, Free All Angels found Kinetic packaging the album with a bonus track and DVD to boot. Even at its $5.99 sale price for its first week, the record did even less business than Nu-Clear Sounds. Still, plenty of American fans who had followed the band since 1977 gave the record a thumbs-up. But the chances of a larger U.S. audience getting ahold of them were decreasing, and Kinetic would fold a few years later.

Intergalactic Sonic 7"s (2002)

Fitting for Ash’s tenth anniversary as a band, Infectious issued Intergalactic Sonic 7″s in 2002. The usual suspects are here along with a new track, “Envy.” But it’s “Cosmic Debris,” the bonus second disc that came with the first pressing, that makes for a really compelling listen.

Compiled of b-sides fans chose online, a number of these tracks are absolutely stellar. The band who said around 1977 that their b-sides were mere afterthoughts, but this collection says otherwise. Their exclusion from the proper albums is understandable, but some tracks make you wonder. “No Place to Hide” originally appeared as a b-side to “There’s a Star” and gets the CD off to a great start. This is classic pop-punk Ash and one of their best songs to date. It was recorded after the completion of Free All Angels, and that’s why it’s here and not on the album.

“Stormy Waters” originally appeared as a b-side to “Wild Surf” and could have livened the mood on Nu-Clear Sounds, but alas, it was not meant to be. “Nocturne” comes from the Free All Angels sessions and would have been a little too soft for the album. Its main melody has shades of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” along with a gorgeous string accompaniment. Other tracks include the Hatherley-sung “Taken Out,” a cover of Mudhoney’s “Who You Drivin’ Now?” and a cover of the Cantina Band song in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

Meltdown (2004)

Meltdown found the band working with producer Nick Raskulinecz, the same producer behind the Foo Fighters’ One by One, and the results were very Foo-ish. In other words, Meltdown is a very polished and rockin’ affair. But it feels a little too rockin’ at times.

Tracks like “Orpheus” and “Evil Eye” are pretty solid rockers, but even the ballad “Starcrossed” is a rockin’ affair. I really like “Clones,” but I can understand others not liking it for being a little heavy on the guitar riffin’. A couple of tracks are friendlier like “Out of the Blue,” “Renegade Cavalcade” and “Won’t Be Saved,” but make no mistake, this is the band’s big rock record.

While recording Meltdown, Hatherley completed a solo album, Grey Will Fade, with producer Eric Drew Feldman. More critically acclaimed in some spots than Meltdown, it was also well-received on the U.K. charts. The album was only available as an import in the U.S. and Meltdown’s chances of a stateside release were also up in the air at the time.

Luckily, Record Collection, a Warner Bros. imprint, came to the rescue, releasing Meltdown with three bonus tracks and a bonus DVD; it looks like the band has found a steady U.S. label for now. Along with some nice exposure in the film Shaun of the Dead (which used demo versions of “Orpheus” and “Meltdown” as well as their cover of the Buzzcocks’ “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays” with Chris Martin of Coldplay), the band still has a loyal following in the U.S.

In 2006, it was a bit of a shock when the announcement came down that Hatherley was leaving the band. Whether or not it was totally mutual, Ash continued work on a new album as a trio while Hatherley worked on a second solo album, The Deep Blue. The band released a new single, “I Started a Fire” in early 2007 with hopes of releasing their new album this year*.

*UPDATE: Ash's final album, Twilight of the Innocents, was released in July 2007. The band plans on sticking together, but will only release singles.

1 comment:

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

I remember listening to 1977 over and over again in 1996. Probably one of my favorite albums that year. I love the pop culture references to the US as well. Top of that chart is the Tie Fighter scream from star wars before Loses Control. Incidentally, that song was the main song in the Playstation Game Gran Turismo. What a great race car driving song.