For better or worse, nostalgia sells. This is something that Downpatrick trio Ash are all too aware of. In September 2008, the band played two sold-out nights performing their magnum opus 1977 in its entirety. This preceded a re-release of the album with three discs chock full of remastered, re-edited and live versions of the track listing. A live album from the band’s halcyon days, Live On Mars: London Astoria 1997 would eventually follow in 2016.
That’s not to say the band haven’t metamorphosed over the years. The trio would recruit Charlotte Hatherly before recording 1998’s difficult second album, Nu-Clear Sounds. She would remain with the band through the release and tours for 2001’s commercial smash hit Free All Angels, and the harder-tinged Meltdown (2004) before launching a solo career.
The band would carry on, releasing Twilight of the Innocents in 2006 before declaring they would never release another. The A-Z Series would follow from 2009 to 2011. Reneging on their earlier promise, the band dropped Kablammo! and Islands in 2015 and 2018 respectively to favourable critical response but little fanfare otherwise.
Now, in 2023, the band have returned with the ambitious Race The Night, which can be best described as a midlife attempt at recapturing the lightning they did in the early ‘90s.
At times, it works. Take the fuzzed-out guitar riffs on ‘Usual Places’ for example. Its sonic exuberance is juxtaposed with its lyrical lamentation on the process of ageing (“Maybe I’m just getting older / Yearning is in the eye of the beholder”). Elsewhere, ‘Like A God’ calls to mind the heavier riffage of the band’s Meltdown era, while ‘Braindead’, while undoubtedly immature in its lyrical content (“I’m calling you braindead / God bless, you dumb fuck”), and the 60-second blast of ‘Peanut Brain’, are as catchy and carefree as the likes of ‘Kung Fu’ from the old days.
However, in other areas, it really, really doesn’t. ‘Reward In Mind’ sounds like an indie landfill one hit wonder. ‘Oslo’, a polished ballad featuring Démira, while pretty just doesn’t feel as powerful as the band surely intended. ‘Crashed Out Wasted’ sounds like The Script-lite, with an awkward vocal sample and twee xylophones perforating the track. The worst offender, however, is ‘Double Dare’, which sees the band bring back the turntable scratching from Nu-Clear Sounds which may have sounded cool back then but feel awfully dated now.
In trying to rehash old ideas, Ash show themselves to be out of step with a scene that has moved on. While not without merit, Race The Night is less a document of a band staying true to itself as it is a band rehashing familiar ideas in the hope of revitalising themselves.