I didn't know quite what to think earlier this year when I read that young Irish vets Ash wanted to move in a "heavy" direction à la Nirvana's Nevermind or Guns N' Roses Appetite for Destruction on their fifth album. Of course, part of the reason I was puzzled was that less than a year earlier, Ash singer/guitarist Tim Wheeler had told the NME that he wanted to do something more "experimental" after he'd had a grand time using a computer-heavy music-making approach to score a short film about the band. But here we are, three years on from Free All Angels, and Ash have delivered Meltdown, another record that can only be described as, well, an Ash record.
That’s not to say that Ash should go the Wedding Present route and print up self-parodying T-shirts reading "All the songs sound the same." But like David Gedge's late band, Belfast's Ash have carved out a highly distinctive sound over a 12-year career that began back when the three founding members were still in high school. Using the raw, punk-pop sound of The Buzzcocks as a starting place, Ash show their affection for bands like Nirvana as they mix loud guitars with strong, highly hummable melodies and Tim Wheeler’s boyish vocals.
Questing for heaviness, the band came to record in Los Angeles with producer Nick Raskulinecz, who has recently worked with Foo Fighters and "supergroup" Velvet Revolver. But outside of some small metallic flourishes on a handful of tracks, including the Frampton-esque "talking guitar" and riff- (and cowbell!) heavy verses of "Detonator," the drum-crazy introduction of "Meltdown," and the flanged effect employed on "Orpheus," these songs are undeniably Ash, albeit with few of the change-of-pace ballads the band does so well. Curiously, throughout the 11 tracks on Meltdown, almost every tune does away with the producer's touch by the time the chorus kicks in.
And as usual, what choruses they are, with Wheeler and guitarist Charlotte Hatherlay's
voices blending seamlessly to take the listener to pure pop heaven, Hatherlay
making her strongest vocal contributions yet to the band she joined back in 1997.
The words, as always, don't add up to a whole lot; Wheeler rarely expands his
palette beyond the typical science-fiction and boy-girl stuff, this time with
a bit of youthful rebellion shining through on the title track's call to rise
up against "the witch doctors and the politicians/[who] rule by fear and try
to keep us down." That's not a complaint, as Ash straddle the line between pop
and punk so well.
Ash are such a remarkably consistent band that it's almost impossible to judge the merits of any one of their albums against the others. With their latest, Ash cap off a remarkable five-album run that's almost unprecedented in these times, and none of the members are even 30 yet. If you're a fan of tuneful, American-influenced pop-punk, Ash are waiting to burn a hole through your heart.