Monday, 10 October 2011

The War On Drugs - Slave Ambient (Album Review 2011)

The War On Drugs is a quartet from the US, formed in 2003 by founding duo Adam Granduciel and Kurt Vile. Several EPs and an impressive debut record later and the band were on the verge of greatness. But by the end of 2008 Kurt Vile had left to become a prolific solo artist. The band now has as many former members as current ones, which makes second album Slave Ambient all the more impressive; that a group of musicians can undergo such upheaval and still make amazing music. Slave Ambient is the result of turning this physical turbulence into musical stability.

Not many bands can embrace traditional guitar-driven Americana and make it sound so fresh and inspiring. Great musicians beg, borrow and steal from their influences and Granduciel has done just that; his voice is part Dylan, part Petty, part Springsteen and musically the band fuses stunning sonic soundscapes (thanks JC for that one!) with melody and orchestral majesty. This is the past launched headlong into the future – smart wide-eyed lyrics meet soaring instrumentation and classic arrangements that suck you into a vortex of melting euphoria.

Slave Ambient begins with Best Night, a perfect tone-setting opener, taking its time to get going as the guitars make way for Granduciel’s prosaic yet lucid vocals. “I believe that I’ve been cursed; been drowned and reimbursed…”, he sings, delivering one of the best lines of the album. A fantastic guitar solo bridges the first two verses that form the first three minutes, only to be followed by more great guitar-work to see the song out its five and a half minute duration. Second song Brothers brings in jangling vibrant guitars from the outset and Granduciel as a curious mix of Dylan and Lloyd Cole (circa 1984’s Perfect Skin). Even at four and half minutes it feels like a fragment of something much bigger. Then, I Was There slows thing down, blending harmonica into the guitar landscape. More great lyrics: “…I thought I had him by the hand; I only had him by the glove…” adorn the song with Granduciel almost slurring the words evocatively.

At the centre of Slave Ambient is a magnificent six-piece epic that combines to create a single solid body of work, starting, in wonderful style, with the energy-fuelled Your Love Is Calling My Name. Driven forward by the pounding drums and more excellent guitars, Granduciel sounds much more focused and determined. This is broken momentarily by a brief psychedelic interlude at three minutes that slowly builds the bass again into more sonic drums. This is the highlight of this core opus as more swirling guitars are added to the outro. A glorious song that leads straight into the instrumental The Animator without drawing breath. This is a beautiful well-judged change of pace and mood; a chance to reflect on what has come before. Then begins another immediate highlight: Come To The City, the best song on Slave Ambient. This builds like U2’s Bad and is just as magnificent. “I’ve been drinking up all the sweet tea… It was made just for me” is another great line. Granduciel is Bono at his very best with bassist Dave Hartley as The Edge and Adam Clayton combined. This builds to a mighty vocal/guitar stadium-filled climax.

The short Come For It fades in to bring another brilliant song: It’s Your Destiny. A wonderful keyboard loop emerges slowly to underpin the song. Here Granduciel is another delicious instrument, his voice floating across the shimmering soup of bass and drums. He lets the music speak in the final minute as the guitars come in. Another fade and City Reprise #12, another stirring instrumental, provides a much needs surface for air. Then the stupendous Baby Missiles completes the show, another fast-paced rock ‘n’ roll master class – throwing everything into the mix with style and substance. A blast of shrill harmonica announces the final outstanding minute complete with whooping vocals and more sublime guitars.

To finish, Original Slave is another great instrumental – all drums and harmonica like a mighty stream train heading into the dark night, fires burning white and spitting coal. Slave Ambient should have probably stopped here, as final song Black Water Falls is a weak swansong given all that has come before. This is somewhat laboured and withdrawn and would have worked better earlier in the album. That said, the guitar-work in the last minute is amongst the best.

Slave Ambient is very nearly a masterpiece; an album that combines structured thoughtful song writing with expertly judged experimentation. Just the right amount of heartfelt lyricism, huge guitars and textured instrumentation create the perfect sound. Echoes of great American voices speak as one through Adam Granduciel who channels the old and the new in equal measure. Comparisons with Dylan and Springsteen aside, he is a unique and talented vocalist with a keen eye for a great lyric. And because of this The War On Drugs sound like a band that have been making great music for decades, and doing it well. A truly brilliant album.
-- CS

No comments: