We're sometimes left to wonder "what if?" on certain occasions. What if Buddy Holly hadn't died? Would he have attained the same level of stardom he achieved in death? What would the world have been like if Jim Morrison hadn't died in a Paris bathtub? What would Kurt Cobain be doing now if he hadn't partaken of a little high-velocity lead therapy? Would he be some burgeoning, well-respected, elder statesman of rock?
I'll give you another, dear reader. What if indie band Ashen hadn't decided to call it a day in February, 2003?
"Who?" I hear you ask. A very good question, and one you deserve an answer to…and so do they.
Pull and Repel was the second and final release from Atlanta four-piece Ashen, who took the rather odd decision to pull the plug on their career immediately before this EP was unleashed upon the world. Fronted by the fragile-voiced Erin Akemi, Pull and Repel shows a throbbing blister of talent just waiting to burst into the big-time. With crystalline tones in the same league as The Sundays' Harriet Wheeler, Akemi is the carved figurehead at the prow of a ship scuttled before reaching the promised land.
The whole EP was recorded to sound like a live set and, indeed, the only giveaway is Akemi's double-tracked vocal here and there. In truth, her voice lacks the power to cut through on occasions and would have benefited from some attention to building a bigger bank of harmonies, but this is a purely personal view. I could also have done without the male members of the band singing a counter-melody on one or two tracks, but the overall impact does not suffer too much.
Too often, the influences of a band can be picked out as easily as an elephant gate crashing a badgers' tea party, but Ashen truly seem to have had their hands on something special. From the opening strains of Scissors Beat Paper, their balancing act of walking the wire between melody and power is apparent.
Our Being Here is a gorgeous piece of melancholia. It's well constructed and has a rich texture, thanks to the interplay between the guitars and the bass. Never overstating the intent, this rolls over the listener like early morning mist. "There's nothing between the lines," sings Akemi. Oh, but there was, Erin, if only the four of you had but realised it. I love this song , even with the male backing vocals (which actually come together as a coherent and viable commodity towards the end).
The oddly titled Cycle Pinsetter, which may be a reference to some obscure Americanism not known on the shores, builds nicely from vague electronica and acoustic guitar to a song which alternately kisses and punches the listener between the eyes. More male vocals here sound as if they were thrown in because they could. They do tend to trample the delicate vocals from Akemi, which is a shame.
Priority One sees Akemi's elfin voice weaving through an intro of guitar and bass harmonics before the track bursts into a majestic, almost 70s-esque, prog rock splendour. This is easily my favourite track of the EP, dodging as it does between the spaces left for Akemi's voice to float away to somewhere in a golden sunset and the slabs of guitar and bass which I guarantee would make anyone's head nod rhythmically. The song's one failing is that it would have really been capped off by a wall of vocal overdubs. I know that some bands shy away from these effects so that they can replicate the studio sound live. However, Ashen must have known that they'd split after this EP, so why not go for gold? Erin, if you ever plan to get back together, re-visit the master of this track and go all Brian Wilson for me, will you? Nine out of ten. Splendid stuff.
The last song on the EP, Two Hundred Words, with its opening harmonies and ethnic percussion is the one and only track which bored me. Meandering too long in the build up to what is a formulaic denouement, it may have been better to leave this off Pull and Repel, as the other four tracks can easily stand on their own. At six and a half minutes, it's a good minute over-long and has no real hook to carry it along effectively.
That I should gripe, already. Proof positive that there is no God, I honestly cannot fathom what moved Ashen to call it quits at this juncture. One can only assume that there were huge musical or personal differences in play. When overblown, over-serious, over-rated bands like Evanessence can achieve chart success, it seems to be something of a travesty that down -to-earth, talented units like Ashen should be allowed to fall by the wayside.
Their next release would have been "THE BIG BREAKTHROUGH ALBUM", make no mistake about that. New fans would be hunting high and low through the highways and byways of e-Bay and used record stores for this and the band's previous releases, Flux Capacitor and No Other Comfort. "You're not a real fan unless you own Pull And Repel," they would have murmured.
Erin, Zac, Benjamin, and Kelly, please re-examine your decision of last year and exploit the groundwork you've already laid down. You owe it to us and yourselves.
What if? What if, indeed.