Slave Ambient – The War on Drugs – Album Review

You know you’re doing something right when people compare you to Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. While the vocal similarities between Adam Granduciel and these three famous American singer-songwriters are very clear on Slave Ambient, The War on Drugs’ latest effort should not be dismissed as just another collection of songs by just another artist trying to sound like someone else.

Patiently crafted between 2007 and 2011, Slave Ambient features a number of renowned musicians from Philadelphia (The War on Drugs’ home base) including Dave Hartley, Robbie Bennett and Mike Zanghi. The four years’ worth of time and effort can be heard in the carefully layered guitars, airy vocals and subtle piano and synth parts, all of which intermingle quite beautifully throughout. There aren’t any extreme peaks or valleys on Slave Ambient; instead, this feels more like a comfortable, rhythmic wave that gently picks you up and carries you along, sometimes quickly (“Your Love Is Calling My Name”, “Baby Missiles”), sometimes getting lost in the clouds (“The Animator”), but always coming back down to continue a journey through hazy and familiar, yet barely tangible landscapes (“Come To The City”). The music’s spacey quality is complemented by Granduciel’s elusive lyrics which weave ambiguous tales of thinking back on that time when that thing happened at that place with those people. Remember? Yeah, that time. While some listeners may get frustrated by the lack of any bona fide “beginning-middle-end” stories and fleshed out characters in these songs, others will surely be pleased to hop on this ethereal trip which, in the end, is more about the sounds than the stories.

Slave Ambient is bookended by the decidedly more traditional, American folk of “Best Night” and “Black Water Falls”, which leaves you wondering whether those weird electronic soundscapes ever even happened, or if it was all in your imagination. The hands-down standout track here, for me anyway, is the instantly memorable “Brothers”. The video for the track provides a satisfying contrast to Granduciel’s narrative-less lyrics, throwing you into a very real yet still dream-like setting and leading you, second by second, through a genuinely harrowing experience.

I’m about four or five listens deep so far, and I’m still having quite a bit of trouble figuring out which track I’m listening to; this is primarily due to the consistent percussion and Granduciel’s samey delivery throughout. That said, my trouble identifying which track I’m listening to isn’t taking away from an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable listen. While you’re sure to find some of the sounds on Slave Ambient familiar to the ear (“Baby Missiles” will definitely have you dancing in the dark, for example), that’s not necessarily a bad thing; The War on Drugs succeed in creating an overall sound they can truly call their own.

And guess what, Vancouverites, you lucky ducks – The War on Drugs are in town this weekend. Yeah. F’real. Not only are they co-headlining the Biltmore Cabaret on Saturday night (March 24) with Sharon Van Etten (see our Upcoming Events section for details), but earlier on that day, they’re playing a free, all ages, in-store performance at Zulu Records. Yeah. I know, right? Yeah! Woo!

Have a wild and wicked weekend, people!