The Northern Irish band Ash doesn’t seem to get a lot of love here in the states, but I’m hoping by revisiting certain album landmarks such as the 20th anniversary of Free All Angels more will come to appreciate their music. This third studio album from Tim Wheeler (vocals/guitar), Mark Hamilton (bass), Rick McMurray (drums), and Charlotte Hatherley (guitar, backing vocals) is the one record I make sure to have on steady rotation when spring turns to summer. I started this tradition unconsciously back in the days of organizing my CD collection (in those big Case Logic binders) by making sure Free All Angels would be the first record I’d see in the front when school finally broke for summer vacation. From the opening lyrics of “Walking Barefoot” where Wheeler sings, “Your beauty took my breath away / In awe all day / Your company was so relaxing / Easy going ways / We saw the first signs of summer and springtime change / Walking barefoot along the sand / I hadn’t planned to stay / Yeah, we’ve been walking barefoot all summer / It’ll be sad my friend / To see it come to an end / Why can’t we just quit,” it marked a laid back transition in my mind of turning the page of the care-free days of what summer means in our youth.
The youthful exuberance of discovering new love, new music, new friendships, and at times the lasting feeling of finding our purpose in life is all over this album that will always hold a sentimental place in my heart. The second track, “Shining Light” encapsulates a lot of these feelings of discovering ourselves as Wheeler sings on the chorus of, “We made a connection / A full on chemical reaction / Brought by dark divine intervention / Yeah, you are a shining light / A constellation once seen / Over Royal David’s city / An epiphany you burn so pretty / Yeah, you are a shining light.” Sometimes these moments can be found by visiting a new place, or by meeting that person that you know will change your life for the better. Ash does a great job of constructing songs like this one around their strengths. They have killer guitar parts, driving bass lines, and some of the best vocal harmonies you could ever find on a power pop record.
The second single released from this album was coincidentally the first track I ever heard from this band, and is called “Burn Baby Burn.” I’m not sure if it was divine intervention, great musical timing on my part, or just my own natural curiosity as I heard this song blasting over the PA system of my local Tower Records that drove me to ask an employee, “Who’s this playing right now?!?” The helpful employee mentioned that they had this band’s album on display on one of their listening stations set up in the store, and the rest is history between my relationship to this record I’ve had in my collection ever since. The pure pop-punk bliss on “Burn Baby Burn” features everything you’d ever want in a single for a record; great guitar parts, solid hooks, a blazing guitar solo, and a beat that makes you want to stick around to see what else the band was capable of creating.
There were some tracks that didn’t immediately grab my attention on the first few spins like the dreamy “Candy,” that features some free-flowing synths, a backing orchestra, and a sound that doesn’t really fit the vibe of the rest of the album. Wheeler sings casually over a few piano notes that, “Don’t you know it’s alright to be alone / You can make it on your own, yeah / Don’t you know it’s alright to be alone / You can make it on your own,” and the track really comes to life with the brilliant guitar solo in the closing outro of the song.
Things get back on the right track quickly with “Cherry Bomb,” that has a syrupy sweet chorus that’s so catchy it would even make Rivers Coumo jealous that he didn’t think of it. Wheeler’s lyrics of describing a girl that he knows could be trouble, but could be everything he’s looking for, are well thought out and make for amazing ear candy. Lyrics like, “Every time that she walks by / Sends shivers down my spine / Makes me want to die / She’s a cherry bomb / She’s a bullet in my head / Pull the trigger and I’m dead,” was all destined for super-stardom on this under-appreciated song. Ash turns the album on its head with the dance floor ready anthem, “Submission” that features several looped sample parts, repetitious vocal parts, and an incredible bass riff from Mark Hamilton that keeps the song from losing its momentum.
Even the starry-eyed tracks like “Someday,” and especially on “Sometimes,” never get too bogged down in their purpose of creating some variety on Free All Angels. On the former, Wheeler dreams about leaving all of his cares behind for the right relationship whenever that day may come. And on “Sometimes,” Ash creates a song as massive as its lofty goals and sounds like something Oasis may have made during their peak of creativity. Wheeler sings passionately on the chorus, “Sometimes it happens, feelings die / Whole years are lost in the blink of an eye / We once had it all but events conspired / Oh sometimes.” The song takes on new wings with the trademark guitar solo/bridge that the band mastered on this album. By painting with several different types of emotions, colors, and themes, Ash were able to bring the best out of themselves on these memorable ballads.
Up-beat tracks like The Beach Boys-esque “Pacific Palisades” are pure summer bliss, and are meant for preparing for the first time diving into the ocean waves after a long year. Wheeler pays direct homage to the Beach Boys when he sings on the second verse, “It’s coming down in sheets of rain / Water’s running in the drains / I lie with candles by my bed / Brian Wilson in my head / Dennis Wilson, Sharon Tate / Dark pacific palisades, yeah.” Even the final song of “World Domination” takes on new meaning as I hear the slab of punk rock bliss as Wheeler wails, “We’re here to speak our minds / Won’t take up much of your time / We want and we want it now.” For a record that has 13 tracks over forty-eight thrilling minutes, their brevity goes a long way in showcasing how powerful their songwriting craft was on this album.
There’s really so much to enjoy on Free All Angels that I hope everyone will get a fresh spin either today, or the next time you’re in the mood to feel something that reminds you of summer. This album made my outlook on life get so much better, gave me direct purpose on letting myself find the relationships I’ve always been searching for, and open my ears to different styles of music from all over the world. To the band that created these thrilling songs, I’m eternally grateful for finding Ash at a time when I didn’t know I was looking for that one album that would define me and pave the way for keeping an open mind to more self-discovery.