Ash & Ice will leave many listeners cold.
There is any number of reasons why an acclaimed band lets five years go by between albums. Typically, relearning to play the guitar isn’t one of them. Five hand surgeries left the Kills’ Jamie Hince facing just such a scenario, as he permanently lost functionality in one of his fingers. His counterpart, vocalist Alison Mosshart, kept busy by moonlighting in the Dead Weather and relocating to Nashville. The gap in output raised both anticipation for the duo’s fifth album and the chance that it would be a letdown.
Despite this, the Kills have teased a follow-up to 2011’s Blood Pressures for over two years, and their spring tour (along with its requisite dual-weekend stop at Coachella) fueled excitement for an album that already boasted two impressive singles. Ash & Ice has been described by the duo as a change in direction. The Kills make a point to pivot on each new album, and this fifth full-length is meant to be less raucous and more nuanced. Unfortunately, the slower numbers drag the record down, and the songwriting throughout lacks the kind of punch we’ve come to expect from this band.
Ash & Ice opens auspiciously enough. Its two promotional singles, “Doing It to Death” and “Heart of a Dog” both have bite. “Hard Habit to Break” and “Bitter Fruit” are divergent enough to add dynamism to the opening third of the album, even the use of such minimalist tools has become par for the course for the Kills by this point.
It’s when the duo turn to what they’ve described as their “more understated, less tempestuous” approach to this record that things begin to grow rickety. “Days of Why and How” comes off as forced in its introspection, and its slogging music can’t save it. The songwriting really suffers on “Let It Drop,” with groaner lines like “For my next trick/ Gonna be like ‘where she go?’/ Make an exit/ Like ‘adios, amigo’,” and bemoaning the complications of relationships with trite language invoking teardrops or death threats. Meanwhile, “Hum for Your Buzz” gets somewhat grating with little more than Mosshart belting it out over a noodling guitar and plodding piano.
Appropriately, Ash & Ice gets back on track again with a song that references the solo trip Hince took for inspiration aboard the Trans-Siberian Express. “Siberian Nights” features a simple bouncing bass beat and some rat-a-tatting drum work to complement Mosshart’s saucy smooth vocal. This influx of forward momentum makes room for the slow piano ballad “That Love,” which continues with themes of finality and broken love, but it does so with more directness and clarity than the earlier duds that relied on cliché. Later, “Impossible Tracks” and “Whirling Eye” kick up the intensity again, and Ash & Ice still proves to have some edge despite its detours into rocky melodramatic terrain.
Regardless of their recent gap in records, the Kills have been around for 15 years, and you have to wonder if their sound is simply less unique now than in the early days of the millennium when their minimalist approach drew favorable comparisons to the still fairly new White Stripes. With bands like the Black Keys and any number of imitators now becoming old hat, the gritty vocal and guitar snarl are familiar to a fault, and many of these tracks feel in need of tightening up. Maybe after a few years away, the Kills felt compelled to try to release something sprawling. In any event, despite some feverish moments early on, Ash & Ice will leave many listeners cold.