I never went through the quintessential American punk rock phase that so many of my peers did during our storied teenage years. I liked punk, particularly rotten sludge acts like Flipper, but I was never that guy. I had friends that sported all black with studded belts and Circle Jerks T-shirts. Me, I was a classic rock kid at heart, cuttin’ class and making mischief in only my most badass Hendrix and Floyd threads. At the same time, though, I discovered the heavy hitters in more experimental realms – My Bloody Valentine, Boredoms, Mogwai, etc. – not a usual trajectory for music discovery, as most kids who get into the weird stuff seemingly came from the punk underground. It’s this transitional period for me that parallels the aesthetic of Philadelphia’s The War on Drugs. It feels like Adam Granduciel and company traveled along a similar path, and as such, Slave Ambient appeals to me in a significant fashion.
While their 2008 debut full-length Wagonwheel Blues was a noteworthy effort, Kurt Vile’s rise to “buzzy” prominence via his signing to Matador had the unfortunate side effect of relegating The War on Drugs to “the band Kurt Vile used to be in.” Not entirely fair. Fortunately those days are no more, as Slave Ambient is a heavy-hittin’ sonofabitch – possibly the finest record of the year. Their 2010 EP Future Weather was a primer, but the maturation and adventurousness displayed on Slave Ambient was unpredictable. This here’s a curveball, fellas.
Slave Ambient kicks off with a trifecta of steadily mid-tempo, supremely psychedelic Americana scorchers – “Best Night,” “Brothers,” and “I Was There.” All consist of straightforward electric folk rife with soaring choruses caked in tape echo and a sonic space deeper than an Oceanic trench — borrowing equally from The Notorious Byrd Brothers, West Coast neo-psych, and the best of the Creation artists. If you think you’ve ascertained the album’s overarching groove at this point, you find yourself mistaken four tracks deep with “Your Love is Calling My Name.” This is a song that separates the men from the boys. This is a song that saw Under the Radar coin a new descriptor – Bossgaze. The reverberated, metronomic drum beat that could send armies to war evokes The Boss at his most bombastic, but the layers of lush swirling textures is what launches this vehicle past the sound barrier. This is a song that should make The Arcade Fire feel like assholes. This is a song that’s so simple, yet so abundant with subtle melodies, you’ll notice a new tone, hell, a new song, every time you drop in. This is a song that reaches out across solar systems and down into the deepest caverns of the earth. It’s fucking devastating.
“Your Love is Calling My Name” builds a palpable tension that collapses into an ambient breather “The Animator.” As this is an artist informed by the classics, they treat Slave Ambient as a cohesive work, summoning the art of the LP listening experience by herein offering the first of multiple inter-song segues. The distant transmissions over the horizon line of “The Animator” are then pulled into the blissful “Come to the City,” the second ‘holy shit’ moment on Slave Ambient. “Come to the City” follows the steadfast, borderline-apache rhythm showcased previously on the album, allowing the tremolo-saturated guitars, silky synths, and call-to-arms troubadour meets Alan Vega vocal melodies to explosively launch into orbit. It’s not aurally dynamic – the ascent is subtle and demands attention… and it’s goddamn gorgeous. Those resplendent flourishes return in instrumental form on “City Reprise,” the more cinematic counterpart to “Come to the City.” Inter-album dichotomies – I dig that shit. Such a nice touch. The album format is not dead, folks.
The “Bossgaze” (though thinking about it, maybe I prefer the term “fist pump catalyst”) returns in full force on “Baby Missiles” – The War on Drug’s classic rock swagger banger. And like the “Come to the City” vs. “City Reprise” complement, “Original Slave” farms sounds from “Baby Missiles,” morphs the timbre, and slows down the tempo a notch to create a krautrock meditation that evokes Can at their most aggressive. At this point, Slave Ambient’s pop facets have referenced full-on heartland rock, while its interstellar leanings show shades of no wave, krautrock, and shoegaze – not an easy feat to pull off. The War on Drugs do it flawlessly. Slave Ambient comes full circle with closer “Blackwater,” meshing bar band piano and active acoustic strumming with an intergalactic, monolithic wall of sound as the backdrop, congruent to the album’s opening triad. While Slave Ambient generally dives into three aforementioned distinct approaches on each song – dusty folk, triumphant cosmic rock, and light speed ambience – all three ebb and flow throughout. It’s this deceptive heaviness and aural malleability that acts as The War on Drugs’ weapon of choice for Slave Ambient‘s 47 minutes of sprawling, unadulterated sonic density.
Overall, Slave Ambient is a grandiose statement of aesthetic juxtaposition, ambition, gravitas, and craft. More importantly, Slave Ambient is a timeless record – as familiar as it is wholly new, as vintage as it is modern. The other War on Drugs originated in ’70s, a decade the band has proven an affinity for, while this War on Drugs appropriates the name for a psychedelic band in an ironic fashion that captures the zeitgeist of the Internet age. This symbolic conflict best encapsulates their vibe, because honestly, The War on Drugs represent no scene. Rather, they are purveyors of a cross-genre pastiche that celebrates attitude and sound architecture with equal reverence, and with Slave Ambient, they’ve released the definitive recorded statement that bridges the sensibilities of stadium rock with the experimental thrash of Basement Show U.S.A.
Slave Ambient is out everywhere in all formats today via Secretly Canadian.