Written by: Dave Cantrell
Some records arrive like personal events. The next Bastards of Fate album will be one of them, as will the Cloak Ox’s new one (should that happen), and finding the latest from UK genre-buster Ashley Reaks in the post box most certainly counts as another, marking that day as one of singular merit.
A revelation when first discovered following the release last year of album number five Compassion Fatigue [1-8] (this is #7; minimalist punk blast-out This Is Planet Grot landed between the two – Mr Reaks has a certain, possibly obsessive, streak of prodigiousness), the artist is by this point an established mainstay around the virtual offices of SEM and Before Koresh, pointedly more diverse and in places – unbelievably – more outlandish, will do nothing but double down on that most cherished of credentials. As made clear in the piece linked above, there are very few if any artists more deserving of your attention should he have thus far escaped it than Ashley Reaks. The freshness, vitality, and sheer bloody-minded unhinged talent on display is really quite staggering. It’s also, in its own odd way, modest, as it’s apparent from every angle that Reaks and his co-horts aren’t here to show off but, rather, it’s just the case that the dizzying results can’t be helped. It’s simply what he, with them, does.
As it opens things, the title track carries on in many respects where CF [1-8] left off, a double-tracked declarative Reaks shouting out the title, a bass from 1980 pumping into your bloodstream, Maria Jardardottir taking up the same refrain before Reaks comes back in with his trademark sick-witty lyric, the voice both trenchant and boy-next-door. There are crisp clips of scatty vox, there’s a light-handed electric piano starts wandering smartly through the mix as an overall busyness of accompaniment – coupla guitars, the drums etc – scurries along underneath filling the foundation with a murmuring intelligence and the thought is ‘Yep, there they are, all the Reaks pieces pleasingly in place.’ Then guest Nick Dunne steps in, unleashing a precise fretboard freak-out through alternating channels like dueling – then dueting – Fripps and Becks. It’s as if the prog station has bled over into the post-punk indie frequency and really that’s not so surprising considering who we’re talking about here, it’s just that this unexpected feels different and perhaps a bit askew to the expected unexpected we got used to last time, which is precisely the thing that makes a new Ashley Reaks album such a keenly exciting prospect.
My wife and I take vacations without itineraries, road trips where maps are mere suggestions. We know what the country we’ll be traveling through will look like, we’re just not sure where it’s going to take us. Though we don’t base our travelers’ strategy on the recording habits of a quirky brilliant British songwriter – that would be crazy – we very well could. A wandering but focused mischief informs this record with a besotted consistency.
“The Dustman,” based on an anonymous children’s poem and sung by Dickies vocalist Leonard Phillips, evolves with madly glinting glee from Mary Poppins chim-chim-in-ney‘s to a twisted fairy tale take on the Sandman legend in the blink of a winking eye and a parp of Edwardian brass. “Wearside Jack” takes echoed Kingston JA tropes and perversely converts them for its own pop purposes until all sense of morality is lost and it slides into drooling savagery in true Jack the Dubplate Tripper fashion. Then, after the brief, enchanting “Gleaming Cinders,” Jardardottir in resplendent voice, wordless but poperatic, comes “Crystal,” a stirring, stunning, disturbing amalgam of Sleaford Mods, Mike Skinner, and David Couse at his most poetically acerbic courtesy Hull’s Joe Hakim, a narrative (voiced by Hakim) that seems not only intent on reversing the title score of a that Housemartins record but also presents a character straight out of central casting were they to make a movie out of “Beasley Street.” That the sound that brackets the words is of a heart-aching beauty, suffused with a kind of delicate drum’n’bass-based poignancy, goes predictably without saying, it being in keeping with the grand paradoxical logic Reaks has made an art of.
From the piquant twistedness of “Hyper-Diseasy,” punchy intricate and full of lurid consequence, to the agile complexities underscoring “Hell and Back Again” – the snarly jazz sharpness of Dave Kemp’s sax outburst, sly tape manipulations, more of Dunne’s tricky if less shreddy guitaring – with the sweet-flowing snark and unbridled cynicism of other Hakim-penned (and -voiced)”I Want to Get A Celebrity Pregnant” in between them, Kemp’s voodoo guitar giving it a snake handler sitar sound, his drifting recorder an aura of weird, misplaced mysticism that nonetheless fits, life as sketched in these tracks seems somehow prettiest when the circumstance is most dire, its players at their most unmoored and desperate. Though assuredly playful, Reaks is an intrepidly dark lyricist – and so, naturally, attracts the same, not least Huddlesfield’s premier postman poet Kevin Boniface on the jaundiced parable of sorts “Mr Barton and the Squirrels” – but really, in the face of the laundry list of perfidy that crosses our newsfeed daily, anything less would seem all that less trustworthy. That the artist cloaks this unflinching work in the catchy raiments of hooky rock accessibility, besides being balm enough, is also of course the very source of these songs’ instant sticking power.
A collagist by nature who obviously doesn’t limit his taste for that discipline to the visual – that’s his rich and confrontational brocade-like work making up every album’s cover – Ashley Reaks already ranked toward the top of the list of recent unknowns (to us, anyway) that have, in the last few years, generated the most joy and bounce-about excitement in the SEM break room. With Before Koresh, utterly charming rascal that it is, he finds himself now permanently enshrined.