Today marks ten years since the release of Ash’s fifth studio record, Twilight of the Innocents. An album that signified the band’s return to being a three-peice –– touting a new, matured sound –– as well as their final contracted release with Infectious Records. It also stood a full decade after their widely-acclaimed debut, 1977.
I’ve always held a strangely specific – ‘product of my time’ – nostalgia for this record. One wrapped up in mid-noughties social media, message boards and the start of secondary education. I was 12 years old in 2007. And it’s taken me a considerable amount of time to view this record objectively. But given this anniversary of sorts: it seems all together appropriate to indulgence in precisely that nostalgia; to reflect on the time that has passed and how this album holds up today.
For the sake of context, Ash were my favourite band as a pre-teen. Although my first concert was the [once-entertaining] Kaiser Chiefs in 2006, it was upon hearing Meltdown –– an extension of the excellent Republic Commando Xbox game –– that offered an entry-point to Ash. Their mix of pop-rock hooks and searing guitar riffs was inexplicably brilliant to where I was in my life. In fact, it was precisely this sound that inspired me to pick up a guitar. Following my first festival, Glastonbury 2007, I concluded that I wanted to learn the instrument: if not entirely to be Tim Wheeler.
This eventually lead to Twilight of the Innocents being the first Ash record I bought upon release. I scraped together my pocket money to buy the Deluxe CD in July 2007 from my local HMV. I recall constantly watching the music video to ‘You Can’t Have It All’ on my 1st Generation iPod video in anticipation. I even joined the Ash message board soon after. Hell, I literately made friends as a result of this.
The point being: I invariably associate this record with that summer. Of starting secondary school, of starting to find new music, friends and fancying girls way out of my league. Of trying to learn Wheeler riffs on a broken Squire Strat and so forth. I was also entirely aware that I was the wrong generation to be an Ash fan. But I see it –– more so now –– as a credit to their longevity that a relatively late release can be so tied to one’s adolescence and growing up. In many ways, this was ‘my 1977‘, albeit a decade too late.
Listening back, Twilight of the Innocents feels something of an undersold release. It shifts away from the bombastic, ‘American’ sounding Meltdown (2004) –– with the song-writing adopting a moodier, more introspective tone. It also seems far removed from the chart-topping hits of Free All Angels (2001). But the attention is garnered at the time, at least in my opinion, overlooked its subtlety. No doubt it sat rather awkwardly against the likes of The Fratellis, Arctic Monkeys and the new-wave indie at the time. Its production – which admittedly hasn’t aged as well as Meltdown – is more post-punk, ambient and orchestral. But the writing is incredibly consistent. In fact, I’d argue that Twilight of the Innocents contains some of the most ambitious arrangements the band have ever released. The string sections in ‘Polaris’ and title track; the sweeping floor-toms of ‘Shattered Glass’; the middle-8 in ‘Blacklisted’. It feels like a band surprisingly energised on their fifth release.
Indeed, the whole album maintains a melancholic yet melodic feel that really locks together. It’s full of the hooks Ash are famous for, but with a matured, almost ‘cinematic’ quality to its arrangements. The guitar playing, especially, is worthy of note. ‘Shattered Glass’, ‘Ritual’ and ‘Princess Six’ contain some of Wheeler’s most tasteful solos. All mixed with a rich, spacial quality. Equally, the rhythm section is impeccably tight. Rick McMurray’s drum fills are huge: with a variety and complexity that really adds depth to each track. There also seems to be an abundance of newfound creativity: with even its b-sides (specifically ‘Saskia’ and ‘Seventh Circle’) ranking amongst my favourite Ash tracks ever.
If anything, Twilight of the Innocents represents the band a decade on from 1977; still wanting to grow and move forward. I’ve always admired this quality to the group, even if the radio stations and record label had little time for it. But I guess this is equally where the album falls short. For every magnificent guitar solo or moving B-side, there’s no Burn Baby Burn or immedate hits. Twilight of the Innocents is not career defining like 1977 or Free All Angels, nor does it reach out to anyone new, either. But rather, it offers something a snapshot of a band in transit: doing things on their terms and on their own back.
Of course, the likes of ‘You Can’t Have It All’ and ‘I Started A Fire’ are perfectly accessible pop-rock songs –– songs I wish received better attention at the time. But it’s through the deeper cuts where the record shines brightest. Tracks that certainly wouldn’t have made great singles nor topped the charts. Songs like ‘Shattered Glass’ and the title song are especially ambitious productions –– almost ‘prog-pop’ –– that have in many ways stood the test of time as fan favourites. Even if they come from a band, or indeed an album, that can be easily dismissed as well past its sell-by-date.
On reflection, I now see this debacle as something inherently positive. It’s precisely in it’s reluctance to buck the trend –– to avoid the 3-and-a-half-minute pop tunes – that make Twilight of the Innocents such an interesting album. It’s at its best when most ambitious; as a band breathing freer, taking greater risks and perhaps not scoring every goal. But it is a record that serves a purpose –– one that exists well beyond my nostalgia for 2007 –– and deserves greater attention as a result.
Above else, I have a lot of love for Twilight of the Innocents. It’s the more misunderstood member of the Ash discography. It might not be the trendiest or most critically acclaimed release from the band –– and it’s not even my favourite record of theirs –– but it’s an album that preluded the A-Z Series, arguably their most ambitious era, and gave the band space to recalibrate. It also had a profound effect on my relationship with music, of which I will always struggle to separate from the album at hand. But for all its riffs, hooks and orchestral moments –– and even the sugarier tunes like ‘Shadows’ –– it’s a record that enchants in a very peculiar way. An album that, despite being a later release from a seasoned artist, means the world to someone born in 1995. And for that I’m eternally grateful.
Oh, and if you’re reading lads: I’d kill for an anniversary tour.