They say you should never judge a book by its cover. In the case of The War On Drugs the well worn cliché should be extended to encompass this particular musical ensemble’s name. The somewhat awkwardly titled Philadelphian band and their equally beguilingly christened second full length album “Slave Ambient”, ensure that within 30 seconds of first track Best Night any negative moniker-related preconceptions are disregarded immediately.
The War On Drugs is the musical vehicle for frontman, guitarist and all round mercurial musical talent Adam Granduciel. Slave Ambient follows last year’s Future Weather EP release (those who have been paying attention will recognise a couple of Slave Ambient’s tracks from this) which itself came two years after 2008’s debut 'Wagonwheel Blues'; without doubt one of the year’s most tantalisingly sophisticated debuts. Now without former sparring partner Kurt Vile who’s concentrating on his burgeoning solo career, it is up to Granduciel to take us on a journey that synthesises and condenses the best parts of American popular music over the last 50 years- it’s certainly a thrilling a ride.
Opener 'Best Night' is a slow burner that sees Granduciel make the most of his languid gravelly toned delivery. This is not the only track that could fit seamlessly onto Blonde on Blonde and the obvious Dylan comparisons will no doubt be made by many, indeed with lyrics as world weary and weather-beaten as “I believe I’ve been cursed, drowned and reimbursed” one could easily been mistaken for thinking they have come straight from a 70 year-old’s pen.
The pace is maintained by 'Brothers' (one of the tracks to feature on Future Weather) which see Granduciel lyrical omniscience assume the role of a detached observer “looking out” but seeing “seeing a darkness in your eyes” before prophesying that if you are lucky enough to be listening you should “lose yourself in your mind”.
The country swing and honky-tonk keys of 'I Was There', could be Harvest-era Neil Young channelling the spirit of Willie Nelson, whereas 'Your Love is Calling My Name' recalls Springsteen and sees Granduciel stretch out and enjoy himself. The naive optimism of the title which recalls the boss is reflected in the lyrics: “I am at the freeway down by the harbour” Granduciel repeats, a seemingly appropriate lyric for such a panoramic snapshot of the travelling American which Granduciel embodies throughout Slave Ambient.
Instrumentals pepper the album, adding to the grandiose , all-encompassing feel of Slave Ambient, meaning that it’s thrilling 47 minutes play out more like a the musical score, than a mere album. 'Baby Missiles' is perhaps the highlight and is in danger, if TWOD are not careful, of quickly establishing itself as a modern alternative classic what with its restless intensity and energy all channelled through Granduciel’s inimitable delivery style.
Slave Ambient bobs and weaves between touchstones and musical forebearers falling through the cracks between genres- defying definition, resulting in one unique, mesmerising, utterly fearless work of art. Slave Ambient is not merely a pastiche, Slave Ambient is bold; brave enough not only to digest and channel its influences, but wear them so clearly on its sleeve too, meaning that as a collection of 9 monumental tracks it, in many ways, is simply incomparable.