The Kills are notoriously a duo that have no fear when it comes to getting to grips with their sexual tensions, anxieties and wrapping such topics within a lurid plethora of jagged guitars and Motorik rhythms. The lustful, loom of Mosshart alongside the merciless wizardry of Jamie Hince and his robust, growling guitar sounds are two things that have cemented them as the formidable duo within music. The title Ash & Ice points towards the binary and cathartic opposition that swills within their relationship and similarly produces such fierce sounds and theatrical performances. As opposites attract, Ash & Ice feels more than perfect as a title.
Arguably taking The White Stripes for inspiration and then pushing this male/female dynamic in a new path, recently adopted by the likes of Blood Red Shoes et al. Where The Kills have often stood higher than their peers is along the lines of that intensity that is seldom found within music. It is an intensity that has riddled its way throughout all of their four previous releases. The strictly platonic sexual tension that has always pulsated between Hince and Mosshart has lead to be the source of their musical prowess, the whole performance is swimming within sweat, devilish sounds and satanic rhythms.
From their 2003 debut release, Keep On Your Mean Side up until 2011’s Blood Pressures, their sound has always been ridiculously distinctive to being atypical of The Kills. It relies on little more than a methodic kick drum, heavy, gritty distortion rattled through a guitar, spat back out in some proto-blues punk fashion and the howl of Alison Mosshart. Over the time, little has actually changed about the roots of their sound, what has occurred though is an overall tidying up, looking back at the likes of ‘Fried My Little Brains’ and ‘Pull A U’, these are songs that relied upon DIY atmospherics that ran in tangent with the lo-fi production. Fast forward to Blood Pressures, what begins to dig in is a cleansing of the lo-fi. So where does Ash & Ice look set to take us? There first release in five years thanks to unfortunate hand fractures on behalf of Hince that have meant a relearning of guitar.
As well as an overall tidying up, there are other factors that cement the modern day Kills sound. One of which is with the building up of instruments. Whereas some bands often choose to strip back around their fourth album – The Maccabees, British Sea Power – because The Kills seemed to start so bare and naked, there has only ever been room to add. ‘Doing It To Death’, the opener of the album and first single released from the album emphasises this point from the off. There are still the overarching signature Kills sounds, however, listen closely and there is the abstract synth tapping that undercuts the chorus. This taps into the newer, Kills ethos that swims around dance floor derivatives a little more, finding more charm with electronics than with the squealing guitars and muffled vocals that previously occupied the duo.
The real fact is that the raucous guitar attitude that previously embedded itself within The Kills is nailed into that intense, do or die relationship that swam within the frisson set off by the duo. A sound that finds its roots heavily embedded within a punk ethos that rests upon a lo-fi, DIY pedestal. As times have changed, both members have become preoccupied with other musical ventures or lifestyles, whether that is Mosshart’s experience with The Dead Weather or Hince’s relationship with Kate Moss. That intensity has become less of a flame and more of an ember.
Ash & Ice for large parts certainly finds its ties within the Blood Pressures and Midnight Boom market which seems to be a confirmation of the groove which is flicking the pulse of the duo in modern times. It’s largely clean and tidy but dig a little deeper, and there are some real changes that are expressed within the LP. Musical influences seem a little more away from the hustle and cuss of Hince’s guitar, they are now found partly within Black Angels sounding guitar riffs; the likes of ‘Bitter Fruit’ gives you a great fat slice of fuzz crumble, this demonstrating the ambition that cuts into the duo. It limps slightly upon a psychedelic crutch with its hypnotic groove. ‘Heart of a Dog’ reaches out to Blood Pressures for guidance, not far from the Motorik garage-rock of ‘Heart Is A Beating Drum’, it ties big choruses into an intense, blues-coloured cigarette packet.
This is a new band in the sense that the emotional insecurity and anxiety that used to riddle its way through the sound of the duo is stripped away in favour of a more confident, abrasive style. Mosshart, having relocated to Nashville, TN has penned lyrics that express a person who is somewhat more comfortable within her own skin nowadays. The manic guitar jive of ‘Let It Drop’ packs guitar hooks into a dance-rock sensibility, it is the type of song that sets baying crowds into frenzies, however Mosshart stands ground where she may have previously wrapped it up into anxiety:
“For my next trick
Gonna be like where she go?
Make an exit
Like adios amigos”
‘Siberian Nights’ does similar, when it expands from the Hitchcock sounding string section, it busts into that groove that was always admired in the duo’s sound, its quick fire drums and strangled guitar enforces Mosshart’s new found solidity:
“I could whip you up like cream
I could drink your seven seas
Is that too close for comfort?”
The anxiety that paved way for their previous lo-fi ethos bled something much more abrasive and confrontational so ultimately, rather than turning on the screw, it has been loosened, only slightly though. That previous disconcertion is still present, just slightly more restrained, or perhaps articulated in more of a humane fashion.
Where the album really finds its true dizzy heights is within its lean upon that Marlboro smoke of Mosshart’s voice. It no longer seeks the same predatory intensity but instead finds its home in a maturer fashion. ‘Hum For Your Buzz’ takes off from the likes of ‘Black Balloon’, it’s washed within a haze of country-blues courtesy of Hince and carries throwbacks to old saloons, stained in whiskey debris and the blood from last night’s bar-brawl. The likes of ‘That Love’ and ‘Echo Home’ affirm this notion more so, a certain for the lovers of the delicate side the duo always possessed, it suggests that intensity within the relationship nowadays is no longer found within the explosive but more within the intimacy. It may not be as exciting, but it’s new and at least it feels genuine as opposed to the plasticity that may of been attained had they tried to reignite anything.
What Ash & Ice really seems to cement is the various influences from their past. It is an updated, less relentless take on their sound. Where comparisons are found, for example ‘Impossible Tracks’ and ‘M.E.X.I.C.O’, there is a slight updating, almost as if The Kills have chosen to visit past songs and add bits that they previously missed. ‘Impossible Tracks’ has the chorus that their previous sound never really allowed for, despite maintaining that grumbling guitar pattern.
So with The Kills in 2016, it’s time that we all lay down our axes and just accept the fact that the intensity that initially proved such a catch has now depleted. Any attempt to try and force it nowadays can spell no good for the band really because first and foremost, they are no longer the young starlets they once were, the novelty has vanished slightly now. Secondly, Jamie Hince is married to the supermodel, Kate Moss, so any suggestion that him and Mosshart were shacking up somewhere together would lead to nothing more than a lie built on sentiment for marketing purposes. What is nice though, is that their relationship means something still. It’s still present, and wisely, they have opted to let it grow alongside themselves, it is built upon a platonic intimacy now that is not set within this predatory battlefield. It’s new, but there’s still something great about this duo.