It might seem odd to do an Album-By-Album feature for a band who have publicly renounced the format, but… there’s no real way to end that sentence. And I’m doing it anyway.
Their first mini-album, Trailer, is a raucous and rough affair that mixes Tim Wheeler’s obvious knack for writing great pop songs with some of their noisest and heaviest material. The three singles (Three singles from a seven-track album!) are amongst their best that they’ve released, especially Jack Names The Planets, which has endured as one of their most popular live tracks. Petrol and Uncle Pat might lack the sheen of their bigger hits, but both are fantastic pop songs nonetheless. With the double header of Intense Thing and Obscure Thing and the riotous Get Out, Trailer has aged surprisingly well for songs written and recorded by teenagers.
I bought this album on cassette from the Virgin Megastore on Market Street on the day it was released, for the ‘1977 price’ of £3.99. All of the promise Ash had shown on Trailer came to fruition on 1977, which literally roared into life with the sound of a TIE Fighter and while my feelings about it are slightly influenced by memories of being in sunny Manchester (on work experience) as a 15-year-old, it’s a pretty perfect album. It’s packed with hits (Goldfinger, Girl From Mars, Oh Yeah, Kung Fu and Angel Interceptor), but the non-singles are just as impressive, whether it’s the pounding I’d Give You Anything, the mournful Lost In You or the stunning Darkside Lightside. A soundtrack to every summer since, even if none of them have quite matched up to those hazy days of 1996…
Live At The Wireless (1997)
A fairly short ‘live’ album that was recorded for Australian radio, I’ve got fond memories of Live At The Wireless, but it’s hardly an essential release, given that there’s not masses of difference between the songs on here and their versions on 1977, due to the lack of audience. The recordings of b-sides T-Rex and (Ween cover) What Deaner Was Talking About are also nice, and I’m glad I own this as it was limited edition, but it’s nothing to worry about for people who don’t have it.
Nu-Clear Sounds (1998)
The ‘difficult’ second album, Nu-Clear Sounds saw the band struggling to cope with and emulate the runaway success of 1977. With new guitarist Charlotte Hatherley on board and a slightly more grown-up and darker sound, this wasn’t what some people wanted or expected from Ash, but it’s actually a very good album. With the exception of Wildsurf, there was no real single to get them in the charts, and the weary exasperation of Low Ebb and Burn Out jarred with exuberant image the band had cultivated. Experimenting with scratches on Numbskull and Death Trip 21 was also unpopular, but I think pretty much everything they tried on Nu-Clear Sounds paid off. It developed the Ash ‘sound’ and has one of their loveliest songs, I’m Gonna Fall, so I’ll always be fond of it.
Free All Angels (2001)
Those hoping for 1977 PtII had to wait another three years before Ash returned with killer singles and a sense of summery exuberance. From opener Walking Barefoot to closer World Domination, Free All Angels is full of potential singles and five of its 13 tracks were released as such. Shining Light and Burn Baby Burn are the obvious standouts and were both instant classics, but I actually find this album a little bit too eager for radio play and a little bit lacking in some of the substance of Nu-Clear Sounds. There’s still quieter songs, but both Candy and Sometimes are a bit too syrupy, while some of the rockier tracks are a bit run-of-the-mill. There’s too much quality here to write it off, but I think Free All Angels is one of their less consistent releases.
Again going from a poppy album to a darker one, Ash brought the heavier guitars back on Meltdown and ditched the Bacharach samples. The result was another dip in popularity that they have never quite recovered from, and it’s a shame, because the album is really quite good. If there is a problem with it, it’s perhaps that it’s all a little bit one-paced, but the songs are mostly good enough to make that not quite as big an issue as it might seem. Starcrossed, Opheus, Won’t Be Saved and Out Of The Blue are my favourites from Meltdown, but while it is much more consistently impressive than Free All Angels, it lacked that ‘star quality’.
Twilight Of The Innocents (2007)
The last time Ash had suffered a fall from popular grace, they’d bounced back with an album full of shiny megahits. This time they returned with an even darker and less accessible release, and it turned out to be their last album (unless they have a change of heart). After Meltdown, Charlotte left the band to go solo, so they were back to their original trio, but that didn’t signify a return to their poppy roots. Instead, songs about suicide girls, the end of the world, shadows and shattered glass arrived. I do like Twilight Of The Innocents, even if it got a muted reception, and if they had carried on along this more ‘mature’ path, it would have been interesting to see where they would have gone next.
A – Z Series (2009-2010)
What they did next was announce that they’d never make another album and would only release singles. In some ways, they’d always been seen by people in the media as a singles band anyway, so it made sense, even if I personally disagree that albums are dead. I listen to these songs as part of their two compilation volumes, but I’m reviewing them as a whole, rather than as two ‘albums’. That’s partly laziness and partly because that would be going against the philosophy behind them. The A-Z Series has seen Ash take a completely different direction with their music, using keyboards and synthesizers more than ever before, and that has helped them create some of their best pop songs yet, most notably Arcadia, Space Shot and True Love 1980. Others, like the epic Sky Burial were equally memorable for different reasons, but the problem with releasing a new song every two weeks for a year was that the quality levels varied quite a bit, so not every track felt like it was ‘single quality’, and none of them got close to the Top 40. Still the good outweighed the ordinary and it was definitely an interesting experiment. What’s next?