#3 – Slave Ambient by The War On Drugs

Label:  Secretly Canadian

Released:  15-Aug-2011

Artist’s Website:  www.thewarondrugs.net

The best album released this year by a band you’ve never heard of.

Unless you’re a fanatical indie music nerd, it’s very likely that you have never heard of a Philadelphia band named The War On Drugs.  If you read a few ‘best new music’ retrospectives this year, expect to get a crash course.  Their second full-length album (not counting last year’s release Future Weather, which has largely been reworked for inclusion in this new recording) has received near unanimous praise in 2011 from tastemakers and bloggers alike.

The sonic stew cooked up by The War On Drugs sounds like it could be a disaster, but somehow it works.  Imagine some of the more laconic songs by roots-rock Americana artists (Tom Petty, Bob Dylan) infused with the propulsive rhythms of 70s Teutonic touchstones (Can, Neu!, Kraftwerk) and the widescreen walls of dream-pop mastered by My Bloody Valentine or Spiritualized and you’ll be getting close.  But magically and alchemically, these diverse influences come together into something much greater than the sum of the parts.  It’s a wonder why nobody has thought to combine them before.

Opening track “Best Night” features warbling guitars and an atmospheric vocal that recalls Bruce Springsteen’s recent albums, all underpinned by a hypnotic drumbeat.  Acoustic and electric guitars cordially wrestle for space on the psychedelic “Brothers”, which breezes by in four and a half minutes.  The song is so entrancing that you’ll barely notice that there’s no chorus.

The rootsy piano and harmonica of “I Was There” sets up the dramatic shift into one of the stand-out tracks, “Your Love Is Calling My Name”.  Driven by an up-tempo E-Street Band (by way of Dusseldorf) beat, the lyric echoes Springsteen’s fascination with lost lovers on freeways and byways while the song builds to a glorious climax of chiming guitars and shimmering walls of synthesizers.

The band repeats the trick by using the instrumental “The Animator” to set up the arena-rock-ready glory of album centerpiece “Come to the City”.  It’s a song that sounds deliriously out of space and time; the beat is motorik, the vocals recall U2’s Unforgettable Fire era, and the guitars and keyboards are straight out of ‘90s shoegaze.  It all incredibly comes together with modern indie rock sensibilities and warm & cozy production values.

“City Reprise #12” and the effervescent “Baby Missiles” take it one step further by emulating Arcade Fire’s fascination with Nebraska-era Springsteen.  The anxious, insistent, reverb-laden vocals are illuminated by thick keyboard textures and tasteful harmonica.  Closing track “Black Water Falls” updates Blood On The Tracks-era Dylan for the 21st century, finally incorporating a brilliant chorus to resolve the hypnotic rhythms constructed by the verses.  The song is a delicious slice of dessert to those who persevere until the end of the record.  And make no mistake – Slave Ambient has clearly been designed as a contiguous suite of songs, meant to be enjoyed in sequence from start to finish in the finest vinyl-era tradition.

Enjoy The War On Drugs as your little secret for now, but if there’s any justice these gentlemen won’t be unknown for very long.  The band simply has too many inspired ideas and has captured too much lightning in a bottle to remain underground.



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