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Saturday, June 9, 2012

Ash: A-Z Vol. 2

ASH: A-Z VOL. 2 (2010)

1) Dare To Dream; 2) Mind Control; 3) Insects; 4) Binary; 5) Physical World; 6) Spheres; 7) Instinct; 8) Summer Snow; 9) Carnal Love; 10) Embers; 11) Change Your Name; 12) Sky Burial; 13) There Is Hope Again; 14) Teenage Wildlife; 15) Spellbound; 16) Nightfall.

The second volume in the series seems slightly less engaging than the first. There is a little bit more electronics, a little bit less hooks, and a nagging feeling that this formula simply cannot go on forever, or, at least, that the English alphabet simply has too many letters in it to adequately fit Tim Wheeler's purposes. But overall, if you already own — and like — the first half of the series, there is no reason not to own and like the second half.

The review will be brief, because most of the general remarks have already been made for Vol. 1, and specific remarks are hard to come by — this is Ash, after all, not the Beach Boys or the Beatles, there is not a lot to latch onto. Catchiest tunes so far are ʽPhysical Worldʼ, one of their trademark fast-paced pop-punk ravers with a message we can all identify with: ("Come back to the physical world, you're lost in the digital world" — tell me about it); ʽInstinctʼ, whose lyrics ("I'm animal, I'm not machine") strangely contrast with heavy use of Cold Synth Harbor; and the anthemic six-minute performance of ʽTeenage Wildlifeʼ, a great, inspiring tune if there ever was one... oh wait, it's a David Bowie song. Bummer.

I have to admit that even the electronic dance stuff is sometimes linked to vocal hooks the likes of which this band rarely, if ever, knew before. There is nothing surprising or particularly likeable about the likes of ʽBinaryʼ, but the chorus truly sounds amazing, with a set of "alright, alright"s in the background that can even remedy a sinking mood — try it out. On the other hand, their at­tempts at mimicking the Arcade Fire sound do not work so well: ʽDare To Dreamʼ builds up a wall of sound all right, but Arcade Fire, at their best, make the song sound big/sprawling/anthe­mic and personal/confessional at the same time. Wheeler, on the other hand, manages the spraw­ling thing well enough, but there's nothing intimate about it.

Arguably the best thing on the entire record, however, is ʽSky Burialʼ — in fact, it might just be the most daring thing Ash ever attempted in their lifetime, and they get away with it: a ten-minute long, almost «progressive», instrumental whose purpose it is to take you to the skies (don't really know about the burial, though — there is nothing funebral here whatsoever). A ten-minute «jam» like that from a band known for its generic alt-rock inclinations should be awful, but this isn't really a jam: it's a well-structured, progressively developing composition, moving along at a brisk, energetic pace (apart from a slowed down, minimalistic-atmospheric midsection), alternating riffs, trills, pretty slide guitar trips, bombastic power sections, wailing blues-rock solos, and a big wah-wah fury in the final section.

The whole thing arrives completely unexpected: you don't normally expect a lack of vocals or a ten-minute length on a single, and Ash are not usually known for taking these sorts of risks. I am not even sure that I really like it so much on its own, not simply for the reason that it stands out so much. But more likely, it just confirms the old suspicion once again: in a different age, Tim Wheeler would not have been saddled with bland mainstream «rock» conventions of his era, and could be continuously doing stuff like that — painting complex semi-psychedelic pictures that begin in Allman Brothers territory and end up on Hawkwind turf. It would have been derivative and not always amazing, but it could have been consistently entertaining. In any case, I am glad that this whole «singles» idea worked, and that, somehow, it gave the band a chance to stretch out and do stuff beyond their usual image. Thumbs up, and it would be curious to know where they will be headed from here in the future: for the next two years, Wheeler kept a fairly low profile.

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