Rating: 4 out of 5
After twenty-six years and six previous albums, Ash return with a new, fresh, twelve-track album that fizzes with a vibrancy more readily associated with youthful exuberance. For Tim Wheeler and Mark Hamilton, at least, forty-one would appear to be the new twenty-one. The latest album from Ash, following on from 2015's 'Kablammo!' (..and the 2007 announcement, now clearly redundant, that the band would no longer release albums) takes its title from its various recording locations on different islands around the world.
The mix and production on the album is crisper than ever; the vocals are ever so slightly more forward facing and the arrangements are not as fuzzy or hazy as some of Ash's previous records. One of the lead singles taken from the new album, 'Annabel', is a throwback to former glories such 'A Life Less Ordinary'. The succinct piece of guitar driven power pop fuses Manics-like riffs with irresistible harmonies and a relentless ever building beat. Album opener 'True Story' is a gentler affair but no less arresting with its revolving passages and sing-a-long chorus.
The original Ash trio of Wheeler, Hamilton and McMurray are also joined by fellow Northern Irish legends Damien O'Neill and Mickey Bradley of The Undertones. Adding vocals, electricity and energy to early release 'Buzzkill', they also seemingly add a touch of unreserved enjoyment and excitement. Lyrically, the song may be pointing in a despondent and disillusioned direction but musically it's all upbeat, thrashing guitars, simple melodies and anthemic hooks.
The twelve tracks that constitute 'Islands' are split between the upbeat and immediate songs that are more aligned with Ash's more commercial output that they are renowned for, and a selection of more considered tracks that come as a refreshing
surprise. Whilst 'Confessions In The Pool', 'Silver Suit' and their like make up the backbone of the new album, it is in some of the less obvious moments that Ash show us a different dynamic.
Coming in as the second longest track on the album at 4m35s, 'Did Your Love Burn Out?' could be considered overly indulgent for Ash but it is not; it is a clear album highlight. Many of the tracks take their inspiration from Wheeler's long term relationship breakdown and here is one of the wheres that benefit from Wheeler's woes. The unfolding story contains a great narrative, some wonderful old school guitar licks and even the odd solo. There are elements of The Raconteurs throughout the track but in the end it is the impassioned delivery that carries it to its bitter end.
'Don't Need Your Love' is slower but similarly tinged with the loss of love and the realisation of a new reality. One of the most laid-back, laid bare arrangements on the album introduces sweeping strings at one point as Wheeler underlines his feelings. Close out track 'Incoming Waves' is the most reflective of the twelve tracks, its most open, and where Wheeler well and truly wears his heart on his sleeve. Lyrically, 'Incoming Waves' is also one of the strongest on the album. "All I've got is time, to think about the moment it went wrong. The chance to put it right, the chance to prove I could be strong."
'Islands' sees a rejuvenated Ash deliver an album of standout singles and a whole bunch of surprises on their latest release. For a band that had vowed not to release another album they've made a pretty good fist of it here. It will undoubtedly please their fanbase but no doubt bring with it some new fans along the way.