Context is everything. According to his biography Ashley Reaks abandoned academia at an all boys public school after hearing the Ramones “Rocket to Russia” album and seeing Gee Vaucher’s artwork for Crass. After failing his art exam by tracing the cover of the first Ruts album, he embarked on a number of disparate projects including making music, collages and Dadaist poetry. Claims to fame include playing bass on “Take That’s” Mark Owen’s solo album and forming electro-pop outfit Younger Younger 28, who, within 6 months of forming, were playing the main stage at Glastonbury. Spending 2000 to 2009 on a variety of exhibitions, art and poetry tours; including stage appearances in a sheep’s mask making moaning noises, and producing a number of album releases from this tapestry of experiences, including experimental music and spoken word “Melancholia” in 2008.
Now 2012/2013 sees Ashley Reaks release a number of divergent albums including the one under consideration here “Power Failure”. The cover artwork itself displays his obvious love of collage, and reflects perfectly the variety of influences apparent on the music within. ‘From Egg to Worm to Fly’ has a striking refrain which skims briskly over a majestic bass line that any fan of Jah Wobble or Bill Laswell would be delighted to hear.
A lifetime’s interest in poetry is evident on ‘Lucky Gordon’ which, whilst having a naive, child like quality, is brought to maturity by authoritative bass and brass. Then we see the collage effect as ‘No Wonder Camels Spit’ changes the mood to one of introspection through repetitive piano phrases and delicate vernacular that are at times evocative of a possible movie soundtrack by Philip Glass and other minimalist composers. By gradually building layers of texture the piece gathers momentum, whilst still retaining an elusive enigma.
Raising the mood slightly ‘Bulldog Grace’ skips gracefully, whilst ‘Karma Bonfire’ grabs the listener by the lapels with stark, pragmatic poetry, read by Joe Hakim over a disquieting mixture of bass, brass and eastern influenced instrumentation. Here we now see the true spirit of the album, where the aesthetic finds its true voice. ‘Miss Holy Holy’ is electro a capella with a sting in the tail, whilst ‘The Glance of Mercy’ is a further nod to experimental, minimalist music but augmented now with bold percussion and brass lines.
‘Jesus in a Manger’ illustrates entirely the influence of Crass and Gee Vaucher, with its confused, feverish spoken word introduction and unsettling soundtrack. Careful listening reveals the spectrum of influences already acknowledged, from dub, improvisational and experimental jazz through to ambient washes of sound. The barbed vocals become breathless and urgent before fading unsympathetically.
“Power Failure” is, in places, uneasy listening, but there is a sense that this is what it is trying to achieve. Ethereal passages of sound laced through with politics. So, context is everything. What Ashley Reaks has created is the product of his experiences and the sounds that have influenced his art. Not music made to a formula, but music created by life.