Twilight Of The Innocents
In these days of the whoosh-up-and-down firework career, fifth albums are a rare beast. Fifth albums that are actually worth getting excited about are, of course, even rarer. But ‘Twilight Of The Innocents’ is the record that proves it can be done. It’s ambitious, it’s energised and it’s packed to the rafters with tunes. Fifteen years after they formed at school in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland, Ash have never sounded better. Really, they haven’t.
The journey that led to this remarkable album began on July 23rd 2005. That was the day Ash opened for U2 at Rome’s 70,000-capacity Olympic Stadium. It was Ash’s fifth show with Bono’s boys that summer and the very last engagement of the campaign for Meltdown, the hard-rockin’ fourth album they’d released 14 tour-filled months earlier. Now, for the first time in a long time, the band’s diary was completely blank.
So, what to do next?
“I realised we needed some big changes,” says Ash frontman Tim Wheeler. “We needed to shake things up. Not just in the band, but in our lives. In everything.” After five Top 10 albums (including their 2002 singles collection), 16 Top 40 singles and countless storming gigs, Northern Ireland’s premier power-popsters had reached something of a crossroads. Or, as Wheeler’s bass-touting school friend Mark Hamilton puts it, “We needed a kick up the arse”.
Part of that process meant that Hamilton relocated to New York and saw the band’s drummer Rick McMurray catch the bug moving from Belfast To Scotland. On a whim, Wheeler decided to up sticks and move, alone, from London to the Big Apple. “It’s always seemed the most vibrant, exciting and creative place that you can be”, he says. “So I just thought, why the hell not?” Despite being in the same city Hamilton and Wheeler took a long break from each other bandwise although hanging out together socially was regular practice.
Having achieved success and celebrity before he’d even got his A-level results (which he opened live on Radio 1) Wheeler revelled in the novelty of a normal, anonymous life in New York. “I know I’m not Robbie Williams or anything,” he says, “but it was pretty weird getting famous at such a young age and I’ve always had that hanging over me a bit. In New York, nobody knew me from being in a band, so their perceptions of me weren’t based on anything but the person in front of them. I completely got down to who I really am and had the chance to reflect on everything that has happened over the years. Being in a band is brilliant, but it’s also a weird suspended animation and I definitely got a lot out of having a proper break from it.”
Not that Ash were put completely on the back burner. As well as channeling his emotions into ideas for songs, Wheeler spent his days searching for somewhere to make the band’s next album. “I’d always wanted to have our own place,” he says. “Somewhere we could rehearse, store our gear, record and use as a base.” Eventually, a friend of a friend pointed him in the direction of a vacant Manhattan studio where the Wu Tang Clan had recorded their first album. A three-year lease was quickly signed. “It’s exactly what we wanted,” says Wheeler, “I still can’t believe it’s ours”.
With the studio in place, the band reconvened in New York at the beginning of 2006. Cue more big changes. Nine years after bringing in guitarist Charlotte Hatherley for V97, the original members of Ash decided it was time to go back to being a three-piece, leaving Hatherley to pursue her already-blossoming solo career. “It was a hard decision,” says Wheeler. “But I think it was the best one for all of us.”
Wheeler also decided that they wouldn’t work with a producer on the new album, taking complete control of the recording themselves. “That meant Tim could really stretch himself,” says McMurray. “We had complete freedom in the studio. Without clocks ticking and producers being there we could afford to take more risks, experiment and make the album sound exactly how we wanted it to.” (The band’s label would prove so impressed with Wheeler’s production skills that they’d soon be offering him work with their other artists.)
To get things going in the studio, the band hooked up their instruments and played together as a three-piece for the first time since the heady mid-90s, when they’d first blasted to attention as teenage punk-popsters with anthems like ‘Girl From Mars’, ‘Oh Yeah’ and ‘Goldfinger’. “It was quite a moment,” remembers Wheeler. “Before that first rehearsal there was definitely a lot of insecurity and fear flying around, with everyone wondering if we’d done the right thing going back to a three-piece. But as soon as we started playing, we knew it was the right decision. Our playing has just developed so much since we were last a three-piece. It totally reinvigorated us. There was a real freshness to things after that.”
Re-energised, the band set to work. “It soon became clear that we had loads of great songs,” says Wheeler, “but the recording process ended up being a really long one, because we were doing everything ourselves. The hours I put in were crazy. For the last four months I was working through the night pretty much every night. But I had a picture of what I wanted the album to be and it wasn’t until really close to the end that it took it’s full shape. That’s when we realised how good it was.”
Finally, after seven months’ work in New York and one hectic day recording string parts in LA’s Capitol Studios with legendary Rolling Stones/Elton John arranger Paul Buckmaster, the album was finished. The hard work had clearly paid off. “We’ve seen hundreds of bands come and go since we came on the scene,” says McMurray. “And a lot of those bands fizzle out because their songs dry out and because they don’t develop. You need to push yourselves and you need a great songwriter. Tim has always worked at his craft and the results are there to see on this album.”
They are indeed. Wheeler has never lost his touch for belting power-pop – the Ivor Novello award on his mantle piece for 2001’s ‘Shining Light’ proves that – and the album begins with a barrelling trio of punk-pop stormers; the loved-up ‘I Started A Fire’, the mightily pissed-off first single ‘You Can’t Have It All’ and the rifftastic, Pixies-ish ‘Blacklisted’.
But, throughout, the album also showcases a new musical ambition. It’s there in the strident groove that drives ‘I Started A Fire’, in the stylistic twists and turns of the wonderfully buoyant ‘Ritual’, in the fizz and pop of the swoonsome ‘End Of The World’ and, particularly, in the epic grandeur of the title track, which closes the album. Over six and a half minutes, ‘Twilight Of The Innocents’ builds from a simple guitar line into a climactic tumult of strings, drums and bared emotions, giving Muse a run for their Big Rock money. “I think this is easily our most artistically accomplished and adventurous album yet,” says Wheeler.
It also contains what could well become Ash’s biggest hit. Having begun life as a simple riff played by Wheeler on the piano at Bono and Edge’s house in the south of France, ‘Polaris’ has developed into a spine-tingling tale of confusion and heart-break with a chorus the size of a small country.
Polaris is one of many songs that benefit from Wheeler’s most open, honest lyrics yet. “With ‘Meltdown’ I was trying to deal with anything that wasn’t personal,” he says. “But I went through a lot of changes in my life before moving to New York and it was quite a confusing time. With this album, I wanted to deal with a lot of those emotions. There’s optimism and there’s hope in there, but there’s some pretty heavy stuff too. It’s definitely an album of experience – there’s no way I could’ve written these songs five or ten years ago.”
“The title really sums it up,” says Hamilton. “There’s no wide-eyed wonder or innocence. I guess in a lot of ways we’ve grown up. But luckily because we started so early, we’re still young enough to rock too!”
Having only just hit 30 this year, Ash are in a virtually unique position. They’ve been doing this long enough to get really good at it, without getting so long in the tooth that they’ve lost their hunger or relevance. That’s how they’ve ended up with an album as good as ‘Twilight Of The Innocents’.
“A lot of bands who make it to their fifth album seem to kick back and do their dusty country record,” says Wheeler. “But we’re not ready to slow down yet. We’ve still got the hunger and the energy. We’re freaks of nature, really. Ever since we started there have been bands who have a big album and then disappear completely. But we’ve managed to buck that trend, because we’ve never stopped driving forwards. We knew we needed to do something special with this record. And I honestly think we have.”
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