Slave Ambient

The War On Drugs, Live at the Crystal Ballroom

It’s only been a few short months since we last saw The War On Drugs live in Portland, and the upgrade in venue from the Wonder to the Crystal matches their surging popularity over the course of this year.  When we last saw them, the band had just released their latest album Lost In The Dream to stellar reviews and they seemed poised to break through into the mainstream; eight months later, as Lost starts appearing at the top of everyone’s lists for album of the year and the band has a bona fide radio hit with “Red Eyes” (which by kicking off KNRK’s “December to Remember” series of concerts last night confirmed), it’s clear that The War On Drugs have arrived.  And just as they did back in the spring, the band came through with a spirited set that left an even larger audience buzzing.

Thanks to the bizarre layout mandated by the OLCC, a solid dead-center shot for this pic.

Thanks to the bizarre layout mandated by the OLCC, a solid dead-center shot for this pic.

After months of touring, the band’s setlist is a well-oiled machine: a strong natural flow has developed between the ballads and uptempo material, and the transitions between songs have now been smoothed over to minimize the delay for tuning and pedal adjustments.  As to be expected, material from Lost In The Dream dominated the setlist, with eight of the ten tracks represented (only the instrumental “The Haunting Idle” and the dirge-like “Suffering” failed to make the cut).  The peppy “Burning” made for a strong opener and set the mood, but it took the opening clicks of “Under the Pressure” for the crowd to begin making some real noise.  That was nothing however in comparison to their response to “An Ocean in Between the Waves”, which due in no small part to its extended solos received a generous applause and some hollers.

It’s clear that despite the affection the crowd had for the band and the new album, it didn’t inspire most of them to go back and pick up the early material, as cuts from Wagonwheel Blues and Slave Ambient were met with only the occasional cheer.  It was during these songs that The War On Drugs fell victim to the Crystal Ballroom Curse, as the overlapping of several effects pedals and similar-ranged instruments created a dense morass that made it hard to distinguish what was being played, even beyond the hazy effect intended by the material.  “These Arms Like Boulders” and “Come to the City” are gorgeous songs if you are familiar with them, but to the uninitiated can seem like mush, though the latter benefited from some nifty drumming that caught the eye of the crowd.  As many who have been to shows at the Crystal can attest, you need a top-notch sound man handling the mix or else everything can turn to crap.

Tuning up amid the haze; fog machine was working overtime

Tuning up amid the haze; fog machine was working overtime

Adam Granduciel kept the evening friendly with his crowd banter, talking about his love of Portland and how he was looking forward to seeing the Blazers play the next night at home (and he endeared himself to the crowd when some folks tried to correct him about the new name of the arena by saying, “It will always be the Rose Garden to me.”)  It didn’t seem at all like the band was weary from touring consistently for nine months, but instead that they had just hit their stride and were generally appreciative of getting to play another show.  The show still felt fresh, even if it was a similar script playing out each night.  As one would expect, “Red Eyes” had the crowd going nuts, but as it happened at the Wonder, “Eyes to the Wind” was the true highlight, with the fans giving that performance a hearty cheer to end the main set.  The encore left the casual fans a bit cold, but since they had heard what they came to hear, they couldn’t complain; meanwhile, I enjoyed going crazy at hearing “Baby Missiles” and its infectious beat once again.  And that was enough to help make the walk out the door seem twenty degrees warmer than the one coming in.

As for the opener, Summer Cannibals delivered a killer set of garage-influenced punk, a bit of a more harder-edged version of the Dum Dum Girls.  We had caught them earlier this year when they were the first openers for The Thermals down in Salem, but at least this time we were able to track them down and actually get their album.  We’ll see if it’s as good as their live show.

Review: The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream

There were high expectations for the latest album from The War on Drugs as they followed up their breakthrough Slave Ambient, a fixture of many 2011 year-end lists.  It’s safe to say that not only has the band met the challenge with Lost In The Dream, but they’ve exceeded even the most ambitious projections.  The band has further honed their distinct style of 80’s Americana pitched through the hazy lens of shoegaze, finding even more common ground between what had seemed to be two unconnected genres.  The combination helps make Lost In The Dream simultaneously one of the most comforting and thrilling releases of the year.

The exciting lead single “Red Eyes”  gave us a clue as to the direction of the album, with the punch of an upbeat rocker that is reminiscent of Slave Ambient highlight “Baby Missiles”.  Instead of keeping the intensity at 11 for the duration of the song though, the song slowly builds and builds, gradually adding layers and volume; the performance is captured so well that the listener can feel it down to each and every snare hit.  On Slave Ambient, “Baby Missiles” served as the climax for the whole album–the band shuffled between shimmery ambient melodies and reverb-soaked folk before coalescing into the big kick of that single.  The War On Drugs took the template of the album and applied it to each song on Lost In The Dream, giving the album a forward propulsion even amid the natural emotional ebb and flow.  This skill allows the band to indulge in longer songs without ever losing momentum.  Opener “Under the Pressure” is a perfect example of this, which even though it runs nearly nine minutes long, it keeps the listener’s attention the whole time.

With their previous work, The War On Drugs were eager to explore dreamier soundscapes, which while pleasant, gave some of their work an unfocused aspect that allowed the listener’s attention to drift before a more fully-formed song would appear from the haze.  With Lost In The Dream, the band has moved into a much more song-based approach (save the instrumental interlude “The Haunting Idle”).  One may attribute this shift perhaps to the absence of Kurt Vile; one can almost sense a split in the identity since that album, as Vile has continued to mine that vein in his subsequent solo work.  It’s not a drastic difference–the trademark style of The War On Drugs is definitely still evident.  There is still a heavy dose of reverb-soaked guitars and vocals, with synth lines that thicken up folk-tinged rock songs that don’t rework old Springsteen and Tom Petty, but captures their spirit.  One can even hear the influence of Bob Seger, right down to the title, in “Eyes to the Wind”.

Throughout the course of the album, the band displays an incredible knack of building complex songs and evoking strong emotions from simple elements.  Most songs are built on the basic rock beat with an emphasis on the 2 and 4 by the snare, with only slight deviations from that formula (for example, the added delay/reverb effect added to the kick and snare on “Disappearing”).  It seems that the band took Homer’s advice of “Why have burger when you can have steak?” to heart, since they know that the beat gets the job done–it forever moves the song forward, pushing the listener’s anticipation into the next phrase.  They manage to keep this repetition from getting stale mostly through the use of dynamics, enhancing the natural push of the rhythm and allowing the song to build organically.  “An Ocean In Between The Waves” is a perfect example of this, and one can imagine how the crowd will eat it up when they hear it live.

It’s amazing how organic the album sounds, as if it was done by a band recording live, when it was actually mainly a solo record.  Stereogum has an excellent behind the scenes look at the making of the album, which is definitely worth reading.  There was an incredible amount of effort that went into the making of Lost In The Dream, and it paid off with what is surely one of the best albums of the year.