Music Reviews
Slave Ambient

The War on Drugs Slave Ambient

(Secretly Canadian) Rating - 8/10

Lennon and McCartney. Jagger and Richards.  Even Barat and Doherty. In rock n’ roll, the most iconic partnerships are the ones that complement each other without tarnishing each other’s individual attributes. Once they’ve said enough under the same brand, its best to part ways and call it a day before they cross into each other’s treacherous path. The usual consensus is that the more disparate the personalities are, the more they’re destined to quarrel and make up because, of course, each other’s collective input salvages the relationship.

It may be too premature to establish the joint venture between War on Drugs founders Kurt Vile and Adam Granduciel as vital, but together they’ve undoubtedly re-popularized the last remnants of guitar-based rock into newly explored pathways without losing its essence. Their debut release, Wagonwheel Blues, was the result of two songwriters sharing a common bond – an effusive appreciation of classic rock that really shined through despite how closely they shadowed those influences. Once Vile drifted into developing his own body of work, Granduciel gradually assembled the bits and pieces that eventually became Slave Ambient while touring with Vile’s The Violators. Having forged each other’s paths for nearly half the time they’ve been musically active, Granduciel finds himself extending a more vulnerable, and nonetheless personal side without losing perspective of the echoes of his past.

Slave Ambient loosely represents a restraint of one’s own machinations - a restlessness that comes into play when you’re deeply absorbed in a search for fulfillment. Intriguingly, Granduciel begins the journey with Vile in Best Night, declaring the words: like a spirit in the wind/ I keep flying. Without even a glance, a subtly psychedelic ambience enters while they both accentuate their straight chords in a paced rhythm. At long last, he finally waves goodbye to his dear friend and kicks into first gear with Brothers; those past inclinations with Bob Dylan are rekindled once Granduciel’s skewed vocals mingle with his sprawling, surrealist lamentations (I'm looking down on the window on the floor/ I’m looking down until I die) as if he were riding the great wide open. As such, he takes no concerns about detracting aging punks with the punch-drunk I Was There, a minimalist jab at eighties jazz-rock that defies our current age’s stylish synth pop as much as Mark Knopfler challenged the post-punk movement in the 1970s.

Granduciel incessantly goes forwards and backwards, spiraling a slab of wobbly textures that sound as conflicted as the windy storm his object of affection creates. Most affecting is Come to the City, which conjures desolate images such as marquee lights and the farmland into an affective nostalgia trip. It is also the album’s beacon – bookended by two instrumental interludes, it mimics the same spacious synergy Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite provided to U2 in its heyday, creating a swirling, liquefied surge of droning chords that recalls Rattle & Hum highlight All I Want Is You. Much of the transcendent atmosphere should also be attributed to War on Drugs scribe/secret weapon Dave Hartley, whose effects-laden contributions are just as palpable as the dreamy reverie he recorded with Forget the Mantra, his wisecracking Nightlands side project.

Granduciel takes great depths to connect with hooks that vibrate with a lugubrious energy, which is part of a challenge in an album so highly concentrated with distortion. It may be gentle (and never obtrusive), but nonetheless indistinct. So when the forward thrust of Baby Missiles rings with an ebullient, church-like joy, that embodiment of emotional detachment is shattered with a welcome burst of pure, unadulterated rock n’ roll. After Original Slave makes its final stop with a forbidding harmonica the sound of a conductor blowing an oxidized whistle, Blackwater sepulchers Granduciel’s spirit with a simple acoustic strum. Thus, it builds up into a rousing, distraught anthem, which has him cry with clarity: well you want to remain/my friend/no it’s not quite the same/remember me when you dissolved in the rain/ when the rivers run dry through the cold mountain rains. It poignantly rises with vigor for five and a half minutes without a wasted or repeated verse.

Whether they’re together or apart, Granduciel and Vile remain emotionally linked, bound to each other’s company even as they purport their own projects. But the real surprise is how Grandicuel has given the War on Drugs an emblematic badge of honor – as many ideas as he may incorporate, he’s still dead set on divulging just the right amount of passion even as he clouds the band’s trademark sonic approach. Just like Slave Ambient’s pronounced wavelength in the cover, it monitors a healthy ventilator pulse with ample life support. Vile may get all the end-of-year glory, but his comrade’s first full-length effort is just as laudable and commendable.