“You can present a Link Wray riff with a sub-bass and a glitch drum machine”, The Kills’ guitarist Jamie Hince said of the band’s long-awaited fifth album Ash & Ice. He’s onto to something here. The Kills seem to have reached the same conclusion as a band like Sleaford Mods: traditional guitar music is not going to break through walls like hip-hop and electronica currently are. The duo exemplify this like never before on their most beat-driven record ever, but are still very much the same guitar band they started in a London squat fifteen years ago.
Lacking a drummer from the very start, The Kills’ drum machine has been the key tool in allowing for the experimentation that many of their peers lack. Never bound to a certain sound, The Kills make a conscious effort to make each album significantly different to each other. It’s been five painfully long years since their last album, Blood Pressures. I say ‘painfully’ quite literally, since in that time Hince has had six operations on his precious fretting hand due to a lost tendon. Meanwhile, lead vocalist Alison Mosshart had been busy releasing another album with The Dead Weather and exhibiting her artwork. Hince’s injuries forced him to reconsider his role in the band, focusing even more on production while his hand was fixed. This could not be more evident over these 13 meticulously-crafted songs.
Ash & Ice is off to an incredibly powerful start. Lead single ‘Doing It To Death’ is laced with a drawn-out guitar line through a stuttering beat, making for a luscious grand opening. The less layered ‘Heart of a Dog’ sees Mosshart’s voice soar across a very simple guitar and drumbeat, almost like an updated version of their initial minimal sound on their 2003 debut Keep On Your Mean Side. With the cutting grooves of following songs ‘Hard Habit To Break’ and the heavier ‘Bitten Fruit’ , there’s worry that they’ve thrown all the album’s strongest points in the first half. Can they really keep this up?
The answer is: yes, they damn well can. ‘Let it Drop’ offers some entertainingly cheesy lyrics (“it got too complicated/cool it down and refrigerate it”), whilst more anomalous songs like ‘Hum For Your Buzz’ and ‘That Love’ temporarily push the beats aside and remind the listener of how multi-dimensional this band truly is. ‘Siberian Nights’ pays tribute to genre-bending pioneers ESG as Hince emulates their notoriously-sampled instrumental track ‘UFO’. Snaking stompers like ‘Impossible Tracks’ contrast well with the bubblegum pop of ‘Whirling Eye’. However more middle-of-the-road tracks like ‘Black Tar’ are a reminder of why this band often gets songs lumped in on generic indie playlists.
This is the most layered The Kills have ever been but at no point does the album feel over-produced. Each part of every song is clearly defined and fits together beautifully. Lyrically, it’s not exactly mind-blowing but the band has always been very cryptic with their songwriting. Their songs have never really said anything. They’re not a band to make bold statements, their lyrics are far more sentimental and metaphorical.
It’s easy to see their rock’n’roll image and Mosshart’s attitude-laden vocals as bearing an element of pretension, but if anyone with enough patience can look past that, what they’ll find is an astonishingly sincere band whose five albums have left a firm mark on innovative guitar music.
One of the more overlooked bands of the early 2000’s guitar music ‘revival’, The Kills are far too unique and dynamic to be as repetitive as many of their peers. If guitar music needed an album perfectly demonstrating how to move forward: Ash & Ice is it. As Mosshart belts out on the closer track “get the vision!”