Ash and Ice is the fifth album from trans-Atlantic garage rock duo The Kills. Being a minimalist rock outfit seems to have become a ‘thing’ lately with Royal Blood, White Stripes, The Ting-Tings (remember them?) Japandroids and Beach House finding fame, I approached my review with a sort of trepidation … where is the bass player, the drummer? This isn’t a band… I like BANDS.
I’d heard ‘Future Starts Slow’ from their previous release Blood Pressures (2011) and loved the pounding drum kit and the harmony of the duet, Hince’s guitar was a character unto itself with a distinctive tone which is simultaneously raw and floating. That track was both melodic and powerful so I looked forward to more of the same from their new album. However I began to feel un-nerved as in the lead up to the release lead singer Alison Mosshart, on hiatus from Dead Weather, explained she’d hoped to find new direction and invention when writing new songs and that Hince was experimenting with a more minimalist synth based production. No bassist, no drummer and now synths instead of guitars? Hmm.
Before writing and recording this album, former Blyth Power guitarist, Jamie Hince suffered a fairly severe finger injury resulting in the loss of the tendon in his middle finger – nightmarish stuff for a guitarist. In an interview with NME Hince explained that the use of synths, loops and samples that form the foundation of the rhythm section on Ash and Ice is a result of rethinking and reimagining himself as producer and instrumentalist.
Knowing of Hince’s struggles gave me a new sense of appreciation for the songs on this album. However, it’s not the use of electronic beeps and whistles which make this album enjoyable or even the range of urban drum beats Hince programs into the drum machine – in fact it’s the part I like the least- it’s the songs at their purest which work the best for me.
‘Siberian Nights’ is an awesome example of The Kills at their most coherent, delicate and intense. It features the most organic sounding of all the drum parts on the album – a driving amen drum beat and (I think) a sub-octave effect on the guitar serving as a surrogate bassline. There are occasions when Hince’s guitar snarls and splutters into life but generally this is the Kills format flipped – all bassline and no real soaring guitars. It works well in collaboration with the other tracks on the album but left me thinking what a treat that would be to hear both bass and guitar.
Other stand-out tracks on the album are ‘That Love’ where Mosshart channels Carol King and laments beautifully and gently with acoustic guitar and piano. I also really like ‘Echo Home’; there’s some kind of magic to a duet and Hince and Mosshart have a wonderful connection and tone together; the rhythm of the synth beat works well here too and evokes the samples used on ‘To Record Only Water for Ten Days’ by John Frusciante.
Considering Hince is carrying an injury, his guitar playing excels on ‘Hum for Your Buzz’ – all bluesy slides and pull offs and Alison Mosshart’s voice soars and wails sadly and gracefully. It’s the track where we really hear the range of her voice and she’s excellent – there’s so much expression and personality to Mosshart’s voice that whatever she sings, it sounds like she means it.
Other songs, like ‘Bitter Fruit’, don’t work as well and the repetition of that driving synth bass note becomes monotonous- taking away the intensity of the song rather than adding to it. Similarly ‘Days of Why and How’ unfortunately sounds a lot like the drum fill button on the school keyboard has just been discovered. They are distinct from the others songs on the album though but for me they don’t hit home. These particular aspects of the production spoils the songs which I imagine would be excellent with just guitar and vocals.
Ash and Ice is a good album- the singles ‘Heart of a Dog’ and ‘Doing it to Death’ are perhaps the tracks that showcase this new direction the most and are probably be the most commercial tracks on the album. However, when The Kills go back to basics – guitar, attitude and stripped back cool, their songwriting is at its best.
I'm a reader, teacher, listener, musician and now writer living and sometimes working in Newcastle.
I've taught English Language and Literature in High Schools for 10 years and hold a PGCE, B.A and MA in English, English Teaching and Media.
I'm a musician and write songs and perform for So What Robot.
My aim with this blog is to become a better writer and communicate my own opinions whilst developing and discovering a writing style of my own.