The Kills - Ash & Ice
by Camilo Oswald
The Kills have always been a cool band; the trouble with cool bands however is they often fall out of fashion due to a pre-eminence of style over substance. Though the Kills have a very overt stylistic sheen, it is hard to argue against the quality of their releases over the years and just how much variety they can produce with a minimalistic set of tools. Ash & Ice is no different and has resulted in a licentious marriage of electronic beats and razor-sharp guitar.
As larger than life as the album title may be, it takes its name from Guitarist Jamie Hince dropping a cigarette into his drink once. Though beyond the banality of the title is the story of how Jamie suffered terrible accident by crushing his hand in a car door which forced him to learn how to play guitar again from scratch; for an indie band on their 5th album and 15th year, it must be an overwhelming challenge.
This makes the riff in album opener Doing It To Death all the more impressive, as well as lending a tad of irony to the lead single’s name. The song showcases the bare bones of the album: drum machines, synths and an impertinent guitar crashing in and out. It presents Ash & Ice as a nocturnal album, designed to be played loudly in a car, driving through the city to the next point of depravity. Heart Of A Dog follows this ethos, and whereas the guitar vied for the limelight in the opener, the beat slaps and shakes its way into prominence here. The almost comically minimalistic two-note guitar interjections are really all that’s needed, whilst Alison Mosshart vocal delivery makes canine-like subservience sound, not self-denigrating, but sexy as fuck.
In a similar template, Hard Habit To Break is constituted by street party percussion, an electric backdrop and Mosshart’s sultry voice, but once again the cut-and-paste guitar is centre stage, beginning as soft introspection, quickly descending into a machine-gun rattle before vanishing in an instant as quickly as it came – only the Kills can get away with this child-like musical cherry-picking. Days Of Why And How may expose the dangers of overuse of dancehall samples, as the intro sounds like the build-up to a shocking chart-house hybrid but that may just be a by-product of finding myself in Arena on too many occasions. On the other hand, Let It Drop almost makes you beg that they take a page out of Calvin Harris’s book and completely milk it, because the ominous, little melody atop a non-existent bass and lyrics such as “you give me reason to turn my tear drops into death threats” build the type of momentum which makes you expect them to unleash all hellfire fury - it is a glaring mishap.
Low-key album centrepiece Hum For Your Buzz” is a bluesy, leather jacket love song with organ included, and with all the smoking and drinking references, almost has a tinge of Alex Turner of late and not just because Alison is a known collaborator of The Last Shadow Puppets. That Love is similarly toned down – utterly drenched in lamenting retrospect crooning “that love you’re in is fucked up/ that love is done”. The use of piano and acoustic guitar would seem incongruous to the album, were it not for the dysfunctional, love-me-not theme that seems to be the common denominator in Mosshart’s lyrics.
The pairing of Stones-esque underlying grove with falsettos in Bitter Fruit makes for a strutter of a song that is well-timed in the album and Siberian Nights pick things up again in the second half of the album. The latter was clearly inspired by Jamie’s journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway, no doubt where the song gets its relentless, locomotive drive from, stemming from the use of actual drums adorned in easy hooks. Impossible Tracks is a sleazy ode to being easily led and having reprehensible fun in the process, and by the time Black Tar arrives, you start to wonder where they’re getting all these nifty riffs from and whether Jamie’s injury was just a masterful publicity stunt (don’t hold me to that). This string of fast-paced rockers are varnished in the kind of slick New York cool of their 2008 album Midnight Boom, except without some of the electric gimmicks of the time. Instead, Ash & Ice relies more on a backbone of rock & roll, despite being garnished in synthy wonder.
Duet Echo Home is the sound of the end of the night, once the headache catches up with the hedonism – to no avail, because Whirling Eye leaves the album firmly where it started, setting the scene as Hollywood, 2am to the exit music of a beat, hooks and surf-rock guitar. Ash & Ice is a quintessentially Kills album; more refined and subtle in parts than its predecessors, yet louder and more debauched when it wants to be. You wanna be cool? Listen to this album.