Happy 20th Anniversary to Ash’s second studio album Nu-Clear Sounds, originally released October 5, 1998.
Released in the spring of 1996, Ash’s debut full-length record 1977 came with its fair share of references to George Lucas’ sci-fi fantasy epic Star Wars. For a start there’s that title. 1977 was the year that the first Star Wars movie hit theatres and started the cultural phenomenon that continues to this day. The record also begins with the sound of a screeching Tie-Fighter before the opening track “Lose Control” barrels in. The record ends with “Darkside Lightside,” an obvious nod to the conflicting powers of good and evil (the Jedi and the Sith) that have propelled the narrative thread of all the Star Wars movies to date. At the insistence of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace star, Ewan McGregor, Ash even played at the wrap party for the film’s production, and years later had their track “Clones” featured in a Star Wars video game.
Yes, Ash loves Star Wars. You get it.
1977 was, like the first Star Wars film, a buoyant and boys own adventure. Full of joy and optimism and infectious indie pop, the record felt like a perfect soundtrack to the heady summer of 1996. Tracks like “Goldfinger,” “Oh Yeah,” and “Angel Interceptor” seemed to come pre-packed in sweet and warm sunshine.
So if 1997 is aligned with the jubilant Star Wars, then its follow-up Nu-Clear Sounds (1998) is most certainly 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, the film in which our heroes must face up to impossible odds, where death and conflict thrive and basically where everything goes wrong for our once jovial leads. Nu-Clear Sounds is the sound of a band engaging with turbulent times.
Yet in retrospect, much as Empire Strikes Back is a vital thread in the whole Star Wars saga, Nu-Clear Sounds deserves reassessment as a vital and important component in the story of Ash and their development as a band.
Ash formed in 1992 in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland with vocalist and guitarist Tim Wheeler, bass player Mark Hamilton and drummer Rick McMurray. As a three-piece they recorded numerous demos and released a mini album Trailer in 1994, which contained the infectious singles “Jack Names the Planets,” “Petrol” and “Uncle Pat.”
The band garnered an international fanbase and the release of 1977 was met with rapturous reviews and a bunch of hit singles. In 1997, they added second guitarist Charlotte Hatherley, beefing up their live sound, adding harmonies that boosted Wheeler’s vocal delivery, and adding a new dynamic to the band’s fairly male dominated rock approach. Nu-Clear Sounds marks the first Ash record to feature Hatherley, and she remained with the band until her amicable departure in 2006 to pursue a solo career. Ash would continue on as a three-piece.
Though in some quarters critically acclaimed, Nu-Clear Sounds suffered from that typical second album pressure and failed to fully connect with the band’s already established fan base. Though it did still reach Gold status in the UK and charted at number 7 in the album charts, it is often viewed as a failure in comparison to what came before and what would come after it.
Another element to consider with the rather lukewarm response to Nu-Clear Sounds is that the record arrived in the post-Britpop era. Though never fully associated with that musical movement, partly due to the fact that Ash also had a heavy presence within the UK hard rock scene, British guitar music as a whole was facing a serious decline at the time. The main Britpop players (Oasis, Blur, and Pulp) had mostly crashed out of the scene. Oasis went full bloat with their third album Be Here Now (1997) and never recovered. Blur ditched their cheeky-chappie façade and released a self-titled record in 1997 that relied heavily on US lo-fi indie and experimental rock as its starting point. Pulp, on the other hand, would release the dark and brooding This is Hardcore (1998) which was very different from their previous record, Different Class (1995) that came during the Britpop peak.
Like Blur, Ash was also heavily influenced by US lo-fi, punk rock and indie rock during this time, especially bands such as Iggy and the Stooges, Nirvana, Hüsker Dü and Pinkerton-era Weezer. They took this influence and rolled with it, incorporating jagged discordant guitars, abrasive song structures and time signatures, post-production blips and sirens, and turntable Scratching courtesy of DJ Dick Kurtaine across Nu-Clear Sounds. It makes for a destabilizing listening experience, one in which everything but the kitchen sink has been thrown into the production brew. It is a record that feels like it has many angles that are not always successful, but it offers a fruitful and engaging experience given time and patience to delve in.
Yet there is also a sense of wanton destruction employed by the band in the recording of Nu-Clear Sounds. The title alone acts like a call for a full-on apocalypse, but in the songs themselves there appears to be a band instigated collusion to self-sabotage their own ear for an infectious hook and rousing chorus. Take for example the opening track “Projects,” a song that has an improbable pop hook lying just below the thrashing back and forth of the bass, guitar and drums that seems to want to corrupt the song from within. It’s a startling, though in some respects claustrophobic, beginning to the record that sets the tone of conflict between pop sensibility and the integration of experimentation that runs throughout.
But if we really want to talk about self-sabotage and self-destruction let’s talk about “Numbskull.” Released as the last single from Nu-Clear Sounds, it begins with an almost desperate guttural scream from the wry frame of Tim Wheeler. A sound that just by looking at Wheeler’s cute face might be hard to fathom ever coming out of his mouth. But boy, we’ve seen nothing yet.
What was perhaps more shocking was the accompanying music video filmed in a seedy hotel in New York City, which features Wheeler engaged in some very real and very graphic sadomasochistic sex with two prostitutes, extreme drug use, and self-mutilation, topped off with Wheeler deepthroating a large black strap-on dildo in a blood-soaked bathtub. It was obviously never shown on Top of the Pops.
But the video is representative of the pressures that were facing the band at this time. Constant touring in support of 1977 and Nu-Clear Sounds had exhausted the band and the video for “Numbskull” is an extreme reaction—and also should be considered a cathartic action—to this mounting pressure.
However, as much as Ash tried to incapacitate themselves with punk rock drama, their ear for a good hook and rousing chorus could not be so easily quashed. The record’s first single “Jesus Says” swaggers along with a kind of Stooges-like attitude and determination. “Wild Surf” brings in a jangly-pop element and Beach Boys-style harmonies that make for a fine summer soundtrack. The already discussed “Projects” sways and crashes about, but it’s instantly likable.
Yet it is the mellower songs such as “Burn Out,” “Folk Song,” “Aphrodite” and the quite beautiful album closer “I’m Gonna Fall” that show that Ash are at their best when they don’t try to overcomplicate their sound and let their natural tunesmith tendencies play out. These songs could have easily fitted within the context of 1977 and subsequent Ash records. They are quite simply ethereal.
Nu-Clear Sounds almost ended Ash. The record’s financial returns were not enough to replenish the physical and mental expenditure. Yet there is a catharsis to the record that seems like a requirement, a case of teenage psychosis set to record that elicits a much-needed wake-up call to the possibilities that lay ahead for such a young band.
Thankfully, Ash re-established their sense of pop and more successfully unified it with brash punk on the follow-up record Free All Angels (2001), a record in which the band returned to their origins and their hometown of Downpatrick to start from scratch. Free All Angels was signified by the singles “Shining Light” and “Burn Baby Burn.” Both sounded bright, airy and effortless in execution and the album itself feels fun, young and vital. It shot in at number one in the UK album charts and sold three million units worldwide. Ash was saved.
To bring it back to that Star Wars analogy from the introduction, dark episodes allow conflict and tragedy to unfold, but they also point the narrative towards eventual victory. Nu-Clear Sounds might not be a brilliant album, but it is essential in understanding the triumph of Ash’s music. It is an album steeped in paranoia, claustrophobia, self-loathing, and self-destruction.
Sometimes, bar the damage done to the performer of course, records molded in these dramas make for interesting listening experiences and deeply creative endeavors. That makes Nu-Clear Sounds an important and much required entry, not only in Ash’s discography, but in the rich history of rock & roll music forged in the dark.