Slave Ambient – The War On Drugs (2009)

Slave Ambient album cover
Slave Ambient album cover

If there was one thing that decades of record buying has taught me is that you can’t judge an album’s sound completely by it’s cover art or title. When I first encountered Slave Ambient from The War On Drugs, I had assumed (and hoped) that it would be another electronic album along the lines of what its title and wonderful abstract album cover art suggested. Of course reading reviews set me straight, but first impressions still lingered.

What I heard was clearly not a Boards of Canada clone – a pleasant surprise to say the least. If the old saying ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ is true, The War On Drugs could be called the best Bob Dylan tribute band out there. While that would be a stretch, it would also be selling them way short.

Lead vocalist Adam Granduciel’s voice does recall Dylan’s in many respects. That’s pretty much where the similarities end, because The War On Drugs takes its Dylanesk attributes and lands them squarely in the modern indie rock arena with yes, some ambiance but not what you might be expecting. 

Expansive guitar atmospherics hint at the shoegazing tendency towards a wall sound. In this way Slave Ambient comes as closes as its title might suggest to ambient music. The melodies found on Slave Ambient stay grounded in the form of a traditional drums, bass and guitar setup that centers around Granduciel’s distinctive vocal style. If any ambient elements exist they are certainly not synthesizer dominated. Instead no less than three guitar players (including Kurt Vile) used an array of string instruments to make a bed of sound that  Granduciel’s  voice fell neatly into. 

For an album recorded over three years Slave Ambient sounds remarkably concise. During the recording process, one of the band’s key members vocalist/guitarist Kurt Vile had just left. Vile had played on a few songs before leaving. The band’s original drummer left also, but those voids were quickly filled and might seem unnoticeable to all but the most intense The War On Drugs fan.

Much of why The War On Drugs became the phono darlings of 2011 was Adam Granduciel’s voice. If I sound like a broken record about that voice, it’s because I don’t know of anyone else who sounds like that. I could think of 10 people who try to sound like Micheal Jackson or even Prince, but very few if any Dylan vocal subscribers are out there. Granduciel’s croon would be like hearing Bob Dylan in a new modern context, something many music might have secretly have hoped for. Songs like “Under The Pressure” march along with a rhythmic pop swagger that might have never been associated with any Dylan songs. Oddly while the band was highly acclaimed, the only song I ever heard on the radio was “Brothers”. The radio clearly was no longer the barometer for success as Slave Ambient would be featured on many streaming media sites.

When the songs slowed down they often revealed a more varied vocal style from Granduciel. “Suffering” is one of those stripped down ballads that’s less Dylan and more…well Granduciel. Either way Slave Ambient accomplished much of the same thing that Panda Bear did with Person Pitch. Panda Bear was obviously influenced by The Beach Boys and others, but brought those influences into today’s indie rock world (even if their target audience had no ideal who The Beach Boys were). The War On Drugs achieves the same effect, but with Bob Dylan to some degree.

As the original rock legends age and their output winds down, later generations of rock artist may re-interpret their styles in new contexts. Its a cycle that happens in rock n roll and someday far in the future might mirror classical music where bands reinterpret ‘the classics” with personal contemporary touches that distinguish them for the original and each other. Until that day comes, The War On Drugs just might be the take on a new Bob Dylan sound some of us might be clamoring for. For those who want to get closer to the source, there’s always the new collection of previously unfinished, unreleased Dylan songs recorded and sung by various artist on Lost on the River.


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