Ash’s new album stays firmly in familiar territory.
It’s so trite these days it’s almost not worth writing it down, but punk rock was never supposed to be a durable vessel.
It was meant to be angry, dirty, confrontational and raw; men still playing punk rock into their late 60s is, as much as we all still have to make a living, not the construct anyone ever envisaged at the start.
If you count Ash as a punk band – it’s a pretty big ‘if’ these days, granted – then reaching album number 8 must be the equivalent of getting a gold watch from your imaginary boss.
Their debut, 1977, was released at Britpop’s height and formed a welcome antidote to some of that movement’s hubris, as well as helping the permanent trio of Tim Wheeler, Mark Hamiton and Rick McMurray start a career which has been since been a rollercoaster and once included a flirtation with bankruptcy.
They’re also an outfit to their credit which has always wanted to keep moving, even if it was only for movement’s sake, such that the entropy of the pandemic, lockdowns and no touring had a profound effect on musicians who like to touch and feel.
In the wake of the greatest hits compilation Teenage Wildlife in 2020, Race The Night given that is surprisingly their first album of original material since the warmly received Islands hit the shelves 2 years prior to that.
5 years doesn’t mean much in Ashland, however. The titular opening track still possesses evergreen if now familiar qualities, Wheeler out to get the unattainable girl against all odds whilst some poppy/punky riff work struts tirelessly in the background.
You may really love Ash, but it’s hard to argue that it isn’t the first part though of a pretty unimaginative triptych. Usual Places and then Reward In Mind complete the set, the former spent lyrically in regret for the landmarks which helped to define them now consigned to history.
The problem however is they’re stilted by a feeling of motions being gone through and general staying in lanes, a mystifying lifelessness for a group supposedly thriving on re-established contact with their art, audience and each other.
What follows after that is an odd cocktail of ideas. On the one hand there’s the less-than-2 minutes of Peanut Brain, the most Ash song Ash have probably ever recorded and, whilst it’s probably fun at parties, there’s not much reason for it to stick around.
This is followed by the near-7 minutes of Crashed Out Wasted, on which they go a bit M83 before surrendering the final 2 minutes to cock-rocking. As a pattern any impetus gained always stalls and added to this, the otherwise perfectly sleazy Like A God gets an unnecessary instrumental reprise at the end.
There’s no doubting that Wheeler can still throw together a tune or two however. The grungy tilt of Over & Out was inspired by seeing veterans Mudhoney in a tiny Brooklyn bar, and using that peth the ensuing mess throws off more energy on its own than its compatriots manage in total. It may equally be heretical, but the best moment comes via Oslo, Dutch singer Demira offering grace on a track conjuring up a rare reflective vision for such a typically straight-ahead project.
Soporific ballads are almost certainly not the red meat the majority of their fans crave, but whatever the rules about burning out not fading away once were, Ash are here to stay and Race The Night delivers just enough thrills to make that still a thing to care about.