It should come as no surprise to anyone that listening to Intergalactic Sonic 7″s‘ coverage of Ash songs 1994-2002 yields similarly exhausting, dewy-eyed results as getting through e.g. a Ramones compilation tracking the eight years between Sheena Is a Punk Rocker and Howling at the Moon (Sha-La-La). Finding a relatively constant position from which to watch the shifting musical tides does more than just account for that (constant) band’s changes (if there are any); it forces us to remember while simultaneously seeing time through the eyes of another. Listening divides the past into two streams heading in the same direction- time slows as we remember, and our hearts swell exhausted as we retrace familiar images to locate people and things hidden in the backgrounds and beneath the dust. Like any document or ruin, Intergalactic Sonic 7″s appeals to more than just the quality of its contents.
Their early singles offer an alternative view of the death of grunge and the beginnings of the Weezer era (concurrently the Pavement era slightly below ground). Ash’s place within these (probably false) dichotomies is ambiguous- they’re sincere where Weezer were wry, quietly vulnerable where Weezer made their vulnerability text, and sloppy where Weezer drew attention to their cleverness. The middle era can be delineated by Tim Wheeler’s subjugation of his native Irish accent (his discomfort over pronunciation can be heard all over their early 90s material) into an apathetic sneer which still wants to emote, and a perfect 4 minutes in A Life Less Ordinary that strikes somewhere between Blink-182 and Sonic Youth, particularly in the divine noise of the guitar solo (it’s also hard not to consider that maybe the appeal of Blink-182 over their peers is that they were all the while something other than pop punk). “I smoke myself into a haze in the afternoon / Enveloped heart, the air is cool” is an all-time comforting affirmation of time and place up there with John Cale’s “I suppose I’m glad I’m on this train”, All Saints’ “This is where I want to be” and Slowdive’s “It matters where you are”.
The third stretch covers a time which was incredibly uncomfortable for any band identifying as ‘alternative rock’ since at least the early 1990s, with post-grunge and nu-metal threatening to seem like a continuation of what those young veterans had started. The question for all was whether to differentiate oneself from these developments, or to continue on the trajectory set not long ago and make-pretend obliviousness. Intergalactic Sonic 7”s answers for the band and makes the case for the latter- 2001’s Burn Baby Burn moves into 2002’s Envy and then back in time to 1995’s Girl From Mars with the aforementioned surface-level discrepancies in vocal confidence and production trends (although Envy is more complex when it transitions into Ash doing Ramones doing 60s girl pop), but no amount of clever sequencing can ignore songs like Candy. Rather than differentiating themselves or writing more frantic guitar pop, Candy sees the band playing both heart wrenching and blasé over a Walker Brothers sample, intermittently cornered by an unusually expressive breakbeat. Sometimes has the delicious lead-line of mid-period Ash but the band cannot obscure the wisdom that also sits atop Candy– there is no denying that we are in the new adult contemporary era.
Songs such as these are familiar but only just, as they tended to hide on the fringe of contemporary radio, politely coming and going, or offering convenient segues between the baroque sleaze of Robbie Williams and the worn sentimentality of Imitation of Life. It is in these moments that time stands still as much as it slips away from us- the flow is both constant and ever-shifting and try as we might to hold onto it or fix our reflected image in its surface, we cannot control where it will take us (this can be dangerous- to Iris? to Lifehouse? to Drops of Jupiter? And then where? So begins an impossibly complicated network of connections, each a step away from Candy‘s perfect frozen moment). Weezer came back and cynically parodied their way into mainstream rock radio (there was still space for frat bro rock), and the rest of Ash’s peers stayed quiet for this period before re-presenting their material to emo audiences (sad teenagers having reclaimed pop radio from sad parents and surly older brothers). We don’t see this in Intergalactic Sonic 7″s: the document closes here, leaving late period Ash as a sort of oddity or ruin of an alternative future.