Two reference points rarely used in indie rock music criticism are Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. Yet it is nearly impossible to listen to War On Drugs’ newest LP ‘Slave Ambient’ without either of those seventies rock icons coming to mind.
The organ quality of recent single, ‘Baby Missiles,’ harkens back to the Boss’s ‘Rosalita,’ while the lead guitar line and harmonica break could easily have been lifted from any Tom Petty song. Even lead singer Adam Granduciel’s intonation seems calculated to remind the listener of some of the boss’s sassier moments.
Still, War On Drugs are not content to merely pay homage to the sounds of the seventies, like their Philadelphia compatriot (and one-time band member) Kurt Vile, Granduciel has managed to update the sound of his idols. In the aforementioned ‘Baby Missiles’ Granduciel applies a subtle echo that exoticizes his delivery and distinguishes it from his influences.
‘Slave Ambient’ begins with ‘Best Night,’ an an easy-going strummer that introduces Granduciel’s relaxed, smooth, voice, and then evolves into a mellow jam filled with phased guitars and hazy ambience. If you have the opportunity to listen to this song while driving home late at night, I highly recommend it.
From this beginning, War On Drugs does an excellent job of sequencing their songs, interrupting batches of well-penned and structured songs with more explicitly textural instrumentals. Throughout this sequencing the band mixes ambient and more traditional rock and roll instrumentation, blurring the lines between these approaches. One example: after the initial set of ‘Best Night,’ ‘Brothers,’ and ‘I Was There,’ the driving rock and roll drums of ‘Your Love Is Calling My Name’ gives way to the song’s underlying synthesizer drone, which in turn evolves into the drifts and undulations of ‘The Animator.’
The band executes this trick again at the back half of the album, allowing ‘Baby Missiles’ to morph into ‘Original Slave.’ But instead of repeating themselves exactly the band keeps the drums consistent from one song to the next, and lets the distorted guitars and processed harmonica blur the line between traditional rock and roll and experimental drone music.
Clearly, parts of the above descriptions could be used to characterize selections of either Petty or Springsteen’s work, but the updated tonal quality of the instruments, less traditional song structures, and application of ambient textures makes ‘Slave Ambient’ a unique album.
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