Review ·
As the now distantly remembered chillwave thing has given way to the more ham-handed '80s anachronism that's been going around, we hear a lot about bands that shimmer and pulse. So I'm reluctant to say that what the War on Drugs does shimmers, even though it surely has its own bright, if bristly, sheen. The difference with this band, though, is that they are first and foremost an excellent rock band. Their new record, Slave Ambient, is an expansive statement from beginning to end. It taps into folk, blues, and rock traditions with knowledge, skill and confidence, but it also coats those traditions in very modern layers, clattered and blipping and confused, even as its sound pumps with hot blood and its melodies glide sweetly.


What the War on Drugs does is a more convincing shimmer (yeah, fine, I said it abou them) and that rises out of how they develop a landscape. Like the sonic folk road trip of Wagonwheel Blues or the haunting space and textures of the Future Weather EP, there is a propulsion to these songs. If front man and arranger Adam Granduciel uses synthesizers and keyboards with wild abandon, there's still a radial hum churning away under them. "Best Night," the album's opener melts the warm strum of acoustic guitar with the airy atmospherics and the effect is striking, even if we've heard it from the band before.


These songs don't want to leave the turf, they don't soar upwards so much as they spread across the land. The epic "Your Love is Calling My Name" also recalls things we've heard from the band before -- the fiery drum machine, guitars layered into some obscured wall of sound -- but yet it feels fresh. The lines assert themselves as the song moves, straightening into krautrock repetitions working against the looser "Touch of Grey"-sounding keys. More than its predecessors, this record plays disparate parts against each other, and if the results seem similar its because the band's sound has enough depth that it doesn't need radical reinvention to keep our interest. But more than that, these sonic tensions make for songs that resonate deeper. Though the layers cohere, they fight to do so, and to hear it happen is exciting at every turn.


Never one to rest on what he's already done, Granduciel does stretch his chops here and, in doing so, produces some of the best work on the record. The roadhouse stomp of "I Was There" clears out the static clutter but doesn't miss its chance to thread beautiful guitar lines over its dusty shuffle. "Brothers", a carry-over from Future Weather, gets reshaped here as a thick dream-pop gem from its country ballad beginnings. Closer "Blackwater" is the band's finest moment here, taking the darker textures they explored on their last EP but tightened them up into a bittersweet storm.


Slave Ambient continues themes of wanderlust and searching that were all over the other records, but as Granduciel sings of friends gone, of calling loved ones home, of trying to find his place in the world changing around him, the music behind him seems to be searching too. And in the gems it finds, it braces his longing on the record with a hope that, however long this road goes on, however long the tires whine and the dust kicks up off the back of the car, however many friends come and go, it'll all end where it is supposed to. Granduciel isn't undone by searching, he is strengthened by it. And as you follow him along the the textured, wonderfully arranged path he's laid out, you're bound to find it just a fruitful as he does.





Mathieu Santos - Massachusetts 2010 These Trails These Trails - These Trails

What a great review, thank you for posting this Matthew! Ty

Ty Gee

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