ALBUM REVIEW: Ash – ‘Race The Night’

Artwork for Ash’s ‘Race The Night’

It’s handy that expectations of mega stardom from Ash don’t seem to be around at all, because Ash themselves haven’t done much to foster them over past several albums. And that’s fine, ultimately. They’re a lot like Feeder in that regard, ploughing forward with meat-and-potatoes alt-rock, and withholding enough inertia even a decent amount past their prime. Islands, Ash’s last album from 2018, felt like an exact product of that, and it turned out well enough for it, albeit not enough to remembered in great capacity today. But at the end of the day, when they’re supplemented by reissues of more wide-regarded work that have proven to get more airtime, it’s enough to keep a typically mild-mannered career trucking along nicely.

Race The Night, however, definitely wants to be more. What that ‘more’ is is unclear, but it’s more nonetheless. And for an album from Ash, the results can wind up surprisingly contentious, full of isolated ideas careening outside of what’s comfortable and tugging with the express intent to both a clean-cut alt-rock profile. An uncharacteristic swing for the fences, then…except this is still an Ash album, and therefore isn’t permitted to go too far. What’s left by the end of it is Race The Night, a collection of ideas that span varying degrees of passable to warmed-over, but don’t satisfy as a body of work. Not at all, in fact.

Even so, it should be acknowledged that Ash trying a bit harder automatically makes this one of their more noteworthy releases in a while. There’s a lot of flavours and textures thrown in the pot that either make some much-delayed returns (see the return of turntablist Dick Kurtaine on Double Dare for the first time since 1998), or have been hitherto unexplored entirely. And on paper, there’s potential for some interesting results there, maybe even in the form of Ash finding a workable line to drill into further. The opening title track is promising enough in that mould, buzzing away with neon synths and the wind-in-your-hair bluster that all good ‘80s-inflected pop-rock is required to have.

Beyond that, there are further pockets that Ash can settle into rather well, like the gossamer ballad Oslo alongside a sweeter vocal foil from Démira, or the fat, jumpy riff-rock of Like A God (with a decent reprise at the album’s end too, by the way). But for each notable moment that’s stuck down, it feels as though Race The Night carries another that either becomes swept away by regular Ash-isms, or just falls apart entirely. Chiefly in that latter camp—and a real dud that the album force-feeds with its exorbitant length of almost seven minutes—is Crashed Out Wasted, cycling around the same twee pop loop and hanging on a lack of necessary ideas to fil itself up. Tim Wheeler’s chiming in “Hashtag wasted” is simultaneously its keystone moment, and the one that makes you cringe every time it pipes up.

So yes, Race The Night’s general awkwardness speaks for itself, but there’s also the sense that Ash are aware of that and try to keep everything as tightly in line as possible. It’s why, despite the occasional moment where you can tell they’re clamouring to fully break out of their box (again, see Crashed Out Wasted), expectation is what’s keeping them back, and the ideas on display feel sequestered by that. ‘Exciting’ isn’t a word you’d use to describe an Ash album anyway, but the push-pull that Race The Night finds itself in—going for full late-period redefinition while also sticking to the script—ethers any potential of that. So to build on that, there’s seldom a sense of punch in Wheeler’s voice or production that that has the colour it wants to. It’s a lot less dynamic than it should be, by some sizable amounts.

At the same time though, there’s still a bit of appreciation to have towards Ash for this. They could’ve easily replicated their suite of decisions their later work has banked on, and for an album that’s as lyrically broad and starry-eyed as this, there wouldn’t have been too many complaints. At least Race The Night seeks to buck some established trends then, even if in doing so, Ash seem to have thrown themselves off the pedestal they were stable and comfortable on. It results in an album that’s far less self-assured in its choices, and far less successful when the band can’t navigate them as clearly. At least now there’s precedent for something else like this in the future, especially if Ash can build a bit more from some admittedly intriguing foundations. Even the most speculative and tentative of changes have to start somewhere, right?

For fans of: Feeder, The Subways, Maximo Park

‘Race The Night’ by Ash is released on 15th September on Fierce Panda Records.

Words by Luke Nuttall

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