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Holy Hell! Ash’s 1977 Turns Twenty!

Holy Hell! Ash’s 1977 Turns Twenty!

Despite its clear influences and the passage of time, 1977 still sounds fresh.

The Northern Ireland-based trio Ash released songs before its members had even graduated from high school. The band debuted in 1994 with the EP Trailer, and its debut album 1977 celebrated pop-punk swirled into catchy grunge.

Often cited as the year punk broke, 1977 was also the year two of the members of Ash were born. Nineteen years later, Ash’s boisterous blend of volume and melody created one of Britpop’s less heralded but most tuneful sounds. The band’s take on punk resembled Green Day more than the Sex Pistols, its indie rock more Dinosaur Jr. than Hūsker Dū, and its grunge applied lessons from Nirvana’s dynamics.

Despite its clear influences and the passage of time, 1977 still sounds fresh. Though growing up in the shadow of punk, the band incorporates Star Wars themes, too. A screaming TIE fighter opens the disc with an unhinged “Lose Control,” and soundtrack homage closes the album, allusively named “Darkside Lightside.” Punk exuberance and junk culture references combine to create twelve bouncing tunes.

In the studio six months after leaving school, the band was introduced to drugs by producer Owen Morris. The headlong rush of the album may be credited in part to this lysergic energy. Fast pop dominates on first listen, but repeated airings reveal craft in softer songs, cinematic in scope, sentimental in lyric.

This well-sequenced album ebbs as well as surges. “Goldfinger” sweeps its audience into a richly orchestrated landscape, calming the mood after the burst of the opener’s intergalactic explosions. “Girl from Mars” compliments the EP’s “Jack Names the Planets” as pleasant pop, with singer-guitarist Tim Wheeler directing his likeable, yearning voice into a radio-friendly, wistful narrative.

Still, busy production sometimes overwhelms Wheeler’s boyish, strained vocals. Midway through, the album suffers from this shuffling about of dense instrumentation and fragile, heartfelt singing. Throughout a career that now spans a quarter-century, Ash prefers this blur of emotional song craft and blaring delivery. The trio may overcome sonic limits in concert, but in studio, the three battle their own din.

When that din diminishes, Wheeler’s talent for mid-tempo anthems increases. “Girl from Mars” and “Lost in You” recalls alternative hits of the previous decade, full of summer’s lilt and love’s promise. “Oh Yeah” soars to a grand chorus in the style of fellow Northern Irishmen, the Undertones. “Angel Interceptor” channels Billy Idol’s slickness into Wheeler’s crooning “ooh-ahh.”

Best of all, “Kung Fu” captures what the Ramones might have sounded like if they tried to pen a manic Japanese pop single. Rick McMurray’s drums rattle along in affectionate homage to Jackie Chan movies. Bassist Mark Hamilton’s “Innocent Smile” sails by in the same insistent propulsion as the successor to the Undertones, That Petrol Emotion. Likewise, “Let It Flow” stands neatly next to another strong album from this era and region, Troublegum by Therapy? If the rest of the album sidles into conventional punk-pop (at least by the standards of the post-Nirvana era), none of them fall flat.

Ash continued to find success after this solid album. A triple CD-set in 1998 reissued 1977 along with earlier singles and a live album of their early-career highlights. The band continues to tour, with the same three members that formed the band as teenagers in 1992.

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