Ash have been together for 30 years, but it was their two years apart which ultimately inspired their brilliant new album.
Like the rest of the world, Tim Wheeler (guitar/vocals), Mark Hamilton and Rick McMurray (drums) were blindsided by the pandemic. It enforced not only the first extended period of downtime the band have ever had in their incredible three-decade career, but also became the longest they’d gone without seeing each other since they met at school in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland.
So, when they were finally reunited to rehearse for a livestream gig in the dark days of 2021, there were some understandable nerves at how it might go.
“Madly, we sounded like we’d never been away,” grins McMurray. “We sounded better than ever. It was probably one of my favourite days of being in a band – there was just such a buzz to get back in a room together.”
That buzz extended to reviewing the next steps for one of Britain’s most beloved bands. Following 2018’s highly acclaimed Islands album, the band had intended to release the follow-up quickly. And, indeed, they had most of an eclectic, part-rock/part-electronic album – some songs even predating the Islands sessions – in the can, even before the world ground to a halt.
But the catharsis of getting back together, supplemented by the joyous reaffirmation of their immense Teenage Wildlife greatest hits tour – which started pre-Covid and finally wrapped in March 2023 – amidst the chaos of a rapidly changing world prompted a rethink.
Tim Wheeler – as you’d expect from one of the greatest songwriters of his generation – had kept writing throughout Ash’s enforced lay-off. And he had turned up for the band’s re-boot camp with a rucksack stuffed full of hard-rocking anthems ready to go. And after all, heavy times call for heavier music.
“I played a shit-ton of guitar in the pandemic,” grins Wheeler, who spent one particularly bored moment in lockdown mastering every single note of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird. “There are some quite outstanding guitar solos on this record which are probably a result of that!”
The solos are, indeed, pretty awesome. But then, the self-produced Race The Night – the band’s eighth full-length studio album, no less – is outstanding in every respect. Having shut down their New York studio base as the pandemic kicked off, the band headed back to the Oh Yeah studio in Belfast with renewed focus and emerged with a record that combines the irresistible rock riffs of 2004’s blistering Meltdown album with the melodic mastery of its 2001 predecessor, Free All Angels – all wrapped up with a distinctly 2023 twist. And, with the distant rumblings of an oft-mooted rock revival on the horizon, it might just be the essential guitar-centric, anthem-packed album the world has been waiting for.
“The last time we went this rock, it happened to coincide with the world going totally indie,” laughs McMurray. “So hopefully we’ll be catching the wave this time!”
“It’s not a calculated move,” stresses Wheeler. “It’s just the timing is lucky. I went to see Mudhoney in Brooklyn and it reconnected me to our early rock spirit – I came out thinking, ‘This is something we could explore again…’”
And explore it they do. Race The Night starts with a bang(er) in the form of its title track and lead single – a song that Wheeler says is about “chance encounters and grasping opportunities with both hands”, something that’s likely to strike a chord as the world finally gets back to normal.
From there, the album fizzes with the barn-storming likes of Crashed Out Wasted – featuring what a newly teetotal McMurray jokes is his attempt to “sum up 29 years of heavy drinking in one drum part” – and Double Dare which, according to Wheeler, is a “rocking Beastie Boys-type song with a lot of braggadocio in the lyrics”, also featuring the return of turntablist Dick Kurtaine, who last scratched Ash’s hip-hop itch on 1998’s Nu-Clear Sounds.
There’s the lethal punk detonation of Peanut Brain, the shortest song an Ash album has ever seen, but no less devastating for its brevity. There’s the scorching Reward In Mind, featuring what Hamilton calls “the best-ever guitar hooks in our catalogue”. And then there’s Like A God, a song so epic it’s been split into two, its powerful reprise providing a brutally uncompromising finale to the album.
“The plan is to have a proper circle pit stampede when we play it live,” grins Hamilton. “It’s definitely got Led Zeppelin vibes.”
But there is also true emotional depth amidst the rock mayhem. Oslo is the record’s big ballad, a beautiful duet between Wheeler and Dutch singer Démira, while the poignant Usual Places channels a real sense of loss.
“I wrote it towards the end of my time in New York,” says Wheeler. “I was thinking about all the places that had closed in the time since I’d moved there. New York has a way of very unsentimentally building over its past, so things disappear. And it made me think about getting older and how the faces of your youth often just aren’t there anymore, they’re only in your memory.”
It’s this ability to cover multiple bases, while always pushing forward, that has kept Ash a vital, growing concern ever since they blasted out of Downpatrick as teenagers with their Number One debut album, 1977.
Most of their contemporaries have faded away, or at least split up before returning, but Ash’s light shines as brightly as ever. For this album, they’re even back on Fierce Panda Records, which released one of their earliest recordings, Punkboy, on 1994’s guaranteed-real-teenagers Crazed And Confused EP.
“What’s our secret?” muses Wheeler as he contemplates why the trio are still together and thriving after all these years. “Making new music and being excited about it keeps us going. We’re lucky we’ve got a great fanbase. And it’s the power of three. If you can get the dynamics going between three people, it’s a lot easier than with a larger group. And we got the formula right early on…”
And certainly, the band that slays together, stays together. Wheeler may jokingly dismiss the recent flurry of ‘90s reunions as “part-timers and quitters – not lifers like us!”, but there is a strength that comes from perseverance and never letting your musical standards drop.
“Writing is a constant journey,” he says. “It’s rare for an artist to stay in one place. There are always evolutions.”
And, as well as music, Ash have always been ahead of the curve when it comes to technology. They became early-adopters of the internet’s direct-to-fan capabilities. With their singles-only A-Z series, they pioneered innovative subscription release schedules when Spotify was still just a twinkle in Daniel Ek’s eye. And they have never once shyed away from the changes wrought on the music business since its ‘90s heyday.
Those changes continue apace but, as McMurray points out, “If you put Ash’s back catalogue into AI, it wouldn’t know what the fuck to do next!”
Luckily, this most vital of bands always intuitively knows the best course of action. And that’s why Race The Night deserves to sit amongst the upper echelons of Ash’s cherished history, and remind the world that – even with 30 years of greatness behind them – the best may be yet to come.