Ash: A-Z Vol. 2
The novelist Iain Banks recently spoke of the difference between writing sci-fi and mainstream literature; science fiction novels depended on a great concept at their core while mainstream novels could be utterly derivative as long as they were deftly characterised and plotted. The same could perhaps be said of singles and album tracks; a successful single generally needs an attention grabbing hook, while album tracks can be more subdued and homogenous.
In 2001, Ash released the single ‘Shining Light’, a song I became as smitten with as the author seems to be about its subject; it would go on to win an Ivor Novello award for best contemporary song, and it well deserved it. It also managed to revive Ash’s flagging career just as it seemed the band might disappear into bankruptcy and obscurity.
Some six years later, during promotion of the band’s fifth album Twilight of the Innocents, Tim Wheeler announced the band were fed up with the traditional album-tour-album routine and would henceforth be releasing music in a completely different way. He argued that the concept of long-playing albums no longer reflect the way people listen to music at the start of the twenty-first century; having MySpace, YouTube, iTunes and now Spotify (and other murky pipelines) at our finger-tips has resulted in our being able to download any song we want to hear within seconds. We no longer have the attention span for albums full of filler.
The band’s conceit then was that they would release a single every fortnight for a year, from October 2009 until September 2010; each single would be denoted by a (seemingly arbitrary) letter and a lovely pantone colour, and the movement would be known as the A-Z Series. A collection of the first 13 singles was released in April, and is now joined by this second compendium.
Often, an album’s tracklist features the most immediate songs at the beginning, to draw the listener in, with the slower-burning songs clustered towards the end. Despite (or maybe because they are) striving to escape the restraints of the album format, Ash appear to have released the more direct songs among the first 13 singles of this suite. As such, the songs A-Z 2 are perhaps slightly less likely to arrest the listener’s attention; indeed, Ash see fit to include the 10 minute long, Explosions in the Sky-tinged instrumental ‘Sky Burial’ in this batch, which is immense in both terms of length and being the best songs they’ve released in the last three years.
The exercise has also showcased Ash’s electronic and experimental sides, hinted at in the past with the mildly left-field ‘Candy’ and ‘Twilight of the Innocents’. Tim Wheeler also appears to be writing more and more on piano, and sometimes utilising a different instrument to compose can generate different chord sequences and melodies. It can also sometimes inject inspiration to fingers that have become dulled finding the same old notes on the fretboard. So this is a more mature and sophisticated version of Ash, and while that’s a good thing in many respects, sometimes you long for a brief burst of the daft young band that wrote ‘Kung Fu’, or indeed something of the calibre of 2007’s magnificent ‘Polaris’. But there are well-crafted songs here, particularly ‘Dare to Dream’ and ‘Spheres’.
Ultimately, you have to wonder exactly what the A-Z Series will achieve; at the end of the twelve month period, we’re left with what are essentially two Ash albums, as well as some 26 singles, none of which charted higher than 65 (it should be noted that none of the first volume’s singles broke the 100 barrier; the average placing of Volume 2’s singles has been slightly higher), but if nothing else, Ash deserve credit for striking out down the road less wandered, disseminating their recordings in a modern flexible way while also embracing a change in musical direction. There is the possibility that quality control has been sacrificed somewhat, with nearly fifty songs being released as singles and b-sides. Part of me thinks Ash could have assembled a terrific album from this crop of songs, but I’m not sure Tim Wheeler would agree. Still, I’m sure he wouldn’t have an issue with the record-buying public making playlists of their favourite singles from the A-Z series.
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