It seems fitting that Downpatrick power-poppers Ash should be sent back to school to preview songs from their latest, and as yet unnamed, record. Their latest jaunt around the more salubrious students’ unions in the country, their first without second guitarist Charlotte Hatherley in 10 years, has been monikered the ‘Higher Education’ tour, and it’s impossible not to start lobbing analogies about ‘finding their feet in the world’ and ‘deciding on a direction in life,’ despite Ash now being amongst the elder statesmen for rock from these isles.
Ash, it seems, have a lot of growing up to do if they are ever to escape their perennial underachievers tag. Four albums in, and with a singles collection that would make The Kaiser Chiefs weep with jealousy, Ash still haven’t fulfilled their potential, commercially or artistically. So it’s a surprise that, instead of choosing to make a statement of intent by opening with a clutch of newbies, the band take to the stage and launch straight into Lose Control, the first track from their evergreen debut album 1977.
Immediately, it’s as if the last ten years were just a Snakebite n’ Black fuelled dream, as the band rip through the muscular power-pop number, showing no signs of missing their errant axe heroine. It’s a visceral reminder of how good Ash really are; loud, cocky and spectacularly tuneful.
Herein lies the problem, however. Nothing here, apart from a strangely flat Burn Baby Burn matches the exuberant, life-affirming pop of their early work. Girl From Mars is greeted with arms aloft devotion from the sweaty throng pressed against the barriers. Lust-fuelled teenage hymns Goldfinger and Oh Yeah transport many of the noticeably receding-round-the-temples crowd to the halcyon summer of 1995, while thrashy debut single Petrol is given a welcome, and nostalgic dust-off during the encore.
In contrast, last-album whippersnappers like Vampire Love and Renegade Cavalcade, good songs in their own right, seem lightweight in comparison. The band may be able to blame Hatherley’s departure for denting their matured sound on these later tracks, but there is a noticeable gulf in class between these and the greatest hits lead singer Tim Wheeler and co keep effortlessly chucking in.
The same can be said about some of the new material, being given its first outing before it hits the record stores in July. Roulette and new single You Can’t Have It All would be good inclusions to most British bands’ repertoire, but seen here, alongside songs like Angel Interceptor that are so ingrained in the minds of anyone who lived through Britpop’s heyday, they are simply by the numbers pop-punk. However, when Wheeler and co move off in another direction entirely, like in six minute set closer In Hell, and the echoing, U2-baiting Polaris, they suddenly come alive again, vital, thrilling and still bloody loud after all these years. Perhaps a spell in higher education will serve them well after all.