Northern Irish trio return with their eighth album of pacey, fuzzy guitar rock
It is, would you believe, 27 years since Ash‘s debut album was released, the sound of three effervescent Northern Irish teens singing fizzy pop-punk tunes about girls, kung-fu and sci-fi. Released when Britpop was at its pomp (although the band, given the political situation in their home country, understandably shied away from that tag), tracks like Girl From Mars, Oh Yeah and Goldfinger seemed like instant classics.
That album was named 1977 of course, as that was the year that Star Wars came out (and the year of Tim Wheeler and Mark Hamilton’s birth). In 2023, Star Wars has morphed into a gigantic Disney-ifed franchise, with seemingly more films and TV shows than there are Ash songs. Wheeler, Hamilton and drummer Rick McMurray though, have more or less stayed the same.
Which brings us to the trio’s eighth’s album, Race The Night. It’s one of those albums that, as soon as you hear a note from it, you’ll know who it’s by. It’s 11 tracks of pacey, fuzzy guitar rock (with the odd ballad thrown in) but, sadly, the tunes aren’t as memorable as of yore. It also feels weirdly dated, from the dreadful neon-drenched cover to the sound of Tim Wheeler singing on one song the actual words “Hashtag wasted” – possibly the most puzzling lyric since Kele Okereke sang “ooh you’re a wrong ‘un” about some bloke called Callum on Bloc Party‘s last album.
Long term fans of Ash’s heavier tendencies though will be more than happy – this is one of the band’s most ‘rock’ albums in many a year, and the crunching riffs on tracks like Like A God and Braindead are probably the closest that the band’s come to heavy metal. Yet the feeling persists through the album that there’s nothing new to be heard here.
Wheeler does still know how to write a good chorus. The title track, which kicks off the album, feels like a song you can immediately sing along to, while Peanut Brain races along in about 100 seconds and recalls those early glory days. Oslo is a bit of a change of pace, and seems like a complete outlier from the rest of the album – a duet with Dutch singer Demira, which begins like an Oasis acoustic number before developing into a big swelling stadium anthem. Like the rest of the album, it’s kind of fine, but feels a but like the band treading water.
The album’s case isn’t helped by lyrics that are safe at best and clumsy and cliched at worst. Usual Places talks about “getting older” and rhymes it with “make you colder”, Oslo way outstays its welcome with a line of “shall we become lovers” repeated ad nauseum (by the end, you’re almost begging the protagonists to get together if only to stop singing), while Crashed Out Wasted is the biggest culprit – six minutes of Wheeler begging for anyone to take him out for a beer at 2am, as he wants to get, and – again, it really is worth emphasising how bad this line is – “hashtag wasted”.
Occasionally, songs like Like A God and the fiery Double Dare do recall the band’s old magic, but those moments are few and far between. Ash should be admired for refusing to cash in on the nostalgia train, but compared to albums like 1977 and Free All Angels, Race The Night is the sound of a band sadly trading on past glories.