ASH: KABLAMMO! (2015)
1) Cocoon; 2) Let's Ride; 3) Machinery; 4) Free; 5) Go! Fight! Win!; 6) Moondust; 7) Evil Knievel; 8) Hedonism; 9) Dispatch; 10) Shutdown; 11) For Eternity; 12) Bring Back The Summer.
Well, it looks as if the LP is here to stay, after all: after all these years of rationalizing about how the format has outlived itself, and how they are going to stick to the single-song routine from now on, Tim Wheeler surreptitiously returns to the tried and true — a monolithic collection of twelve new songs, tied together with a comic-book-derived title that suggests... huge impact? Well, you wish. According to the world at large, Ash had had their three-five-ten seconds of fame twenty years ago, and you might just as well be listening to Gilles Binchois these days — in fact, I am fairly certain that early medieval composers have a more loyal fanbase today than slowly aging alt-rockers from the 1990s. Had they had the most wittily composed and memorable melodies in a decade, even then this record would hardly cause a ripple. Yes, if you accumulate enough impulse, like the Stones or Madonna, you're pretty much set for life — but if you just had a small bunch of alt-rock radio hits twenty years ago, who gives a damn? You're not even yesterday's news, pal, you're more like an unknown quantum state.
Why am I bitching about this? Because, believe it or not, I get the feeling that with Kablammo!, Wheeler and Co. have produced their finest album in... oh wait... maybe, like, ever. It was curious how that A-Z run of singles actually helped Wheeler pay more attention to his melodies and avoid too much filler, but it seems as if the long-term effects, too, have been beneficial, and these days, Ash just go on writing good songs — not great, earth-shattering, innovative songs, but just regular power-pop and art-pop songs that sound... nice. No big pretense, no attempts to change the world, just half an hour of emotionally charged music.
The lead single and the opening track is ʽCocoonʼ, and you will not fail to notice that it consists almost exclusively of clichés — opening with the ʽHard Day's Nightʼ power chord, then launching into the introduction with some powerhouse Blondie-style drumming, then superimposing simple falsetto chorus harmonies over chainsaw guitar riffage (Ramones or My Bloody Valentine?), but it all works out, and there is even an uplifting, high-pitched power-pop lead line popping up from time to time if you needed an extra hook. The lyrics? They have no significance, it's just fun to sing along with "cocoo-oo-waa-oon, cocoo-oo-waa-oon", especially if you have no problem hitting the falsetto range. Cool song, me likey.
Then comes song number two, which wasn't even a single: ʽLet's Rideʼ. Guitar fanfare for the announcement, drum bash, a jagged glam-style guitar riff... the chorus could perhaps use less reliance on grumbly power chords, but then they rectify things with an added hard rock melody for the bridge (that's what, two different riffs in a 2015 pop song? what a reckless waste of material!) and an ecstatic blubbering solo. No complaining from me.
Okay, that's a little too much Smiths influence at the beginning of track three, ʽMachineryʼ. But then the Smiths usually favored slower tempos, and anyway, Wheeler is neither a master of true guitar jangle nor a fan of theatrical vocal deliveries, so by the time they rise to the top of that chorus, everything is forgiven. Again, good song. But now comes the big quest — a ballad! With ʽFreeʼ, you still have a relatively fast rhythm, echoey psychedelic guitar tones, and another catchy chorus, quietly burning with longing, yearning, whatever it takes to justify the song title, and then towards the end you get a restrained, but focused intrusion from some strings and cellos: another nice touch that was completely unnecessary, but it feels so good to have it here.
And now comes the really odd part: it's all more or less like that right to the very end. Nicely constructed, pleasantly executed songs of love, hope, frustration, and a little nostalgia, one after another. Nothing is particularly awe-inspiring, but nothing is particularly stupid, either. The two big orchestrated ballads (ʽMoondustʼ and ʽFor Eternityʼ) echo John Lennon, Elton John, and ELO rather than Eighties' and post-Eighties power ballads, with more emphasis on cellos and acoustic guitars than violins and electric guitars (that's always a good sign); the instrumental ʽEvil Knievelʼ is like a joint tribute to James Bond themes, spaghetti-western overtures, and Ritchie Blackmore at the same time; and ʽBring Back The Summerʼ finishes the album on a Beach Boyish note, so endearing that we can even forget them the inscrutable decision to use a drum machine. Maybe drum machines are well known for their ability to bring back the summer.
To put an unnecessarily long story short, Kablammo! keeps it short, simple, but smart, and I suppose that might just be the only way to go about it in an era where 99% of conscious attempts to «innovate» just pathetically end up reinventing the wheel. At any rate, I wouldn't be surprised if it ultimately turned out to be one of the best rock albums of 2015 — at least, I certainly wouldn't object to this becoming a reality. Congratulations, Mr. Wheeler, all you really had to do was open your mind to as many clichés as possible — not just Nineties clichés, but all the way to the Seventies and Sixties — and then your mind was able to reshuffle and recombine them in such a surprisingly refreshing manner. If this is mediocrity, well, gimme more; for now, just a very grateful thumbs up, because it is albums like these that show how my obsession with complete discographies is not always a total OCD-related waste.