A-Z, Vol. 2

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Following Prince's free giveaway of Planet Earth, and Radiohead's "pay what you want" download approach for In Rainbows, Northern Irish power pop trio Ash are the latest artists to challenge the traditional methods of releasing material with their highly ambitious A-Z singles concept. Having eschewed the conventional album in favor of issuing a brand new digital single every fortnight, this second physical volume, which compiles the 13 N-Z songs released over six months in 2010, may rather defeat the purpose, but it's a chance for those who couldn't keep up with their prolific work rate to hear how the rather innovative project appears to have given the band a new lease of life. Disillusioned with their previous record company's treatment of their under-performing swan song, Twilight of the Innocents, Tim Wheeler and co. have returned with a newfound sense of urgency, and a rather free-spirited approach which has allowed them to embrace their more experimental side they previously hinted at with 2001's chart-topping Free All Angels. Co-produced with previous collaborator Claudius Mittendorfer, there are still the exuberant heavy rock monsters (the Motörhead-influenced "Embers"), the freewheeling guitar solos (the slightly gothic "Instinct"), and the college punk anthems (the expletive-laden "Mind Control"), while Wheeler's pure pop melodies are still in evidence on the breezy, laid-back grooves of "Carnal Love" and the Brit-pop-inspired singalong of "Change Your Name"). But they're also joined by a rare venture into indie disco territory, on the space age synths and Franz Ferdinand-esque funky basslines of "Binary," convincing attempts at grandiose Muse-style prog rock (the opener "Dare to Dream" and the bombastic "There Is Hope Again"), and most ambitiously, a sprawling post-rock instrumental, "Sky Burial," which incorporates shimmering shoezgaze rock, thrashing hair-metal guitars, and Sigur Rós-esque dream pop in one epic ten-minute track. The three B-sides tagged on at the end also offer just as much invention, from the squelchy synth-funk of "Spellbound," to the orchestral cinematic "Nightfall," to the snarling cover version of David Bowie's "Teenage Wildlife." The whole A-Z project might not have reaped the rewards the band was hoping for (only "Instinct" managed to break the Top 75), but it's an admirably brave idea which, on the evidence of this second volume, suggests it's one it might be wise to keep on pursuing.

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