Six Degrees of the War on Drugs’ Slave Ambient

Marc Hogan

By Marc Hogan

Lead News Writer
on 09.28.11 in Six Degrees

It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.

The Album

Classic rock asks how it feels to be like a rolling stone. Ambient music asks, in effect, how it feels to be the stone; passivity is a goal. The War on Drugs combine those two questions more neatly than many of their atmospheric-rock peers - and never better than on the Philadelphia band's second album, Slave Ambient. What sets these guys apart, like their co-founder Kurt Vile, is how they manage to blast off into endless space without ever taking their eyes off the open road. On Slave Ambient, Vile is gone, but Highway 61 still stretches off into starry infinity.

"I'm just drifting," frontman Adam Granduciel sings through the reverb on "Come to the City." The track comes halfway through the album, and crucially, he's only telling half the truth. While the 12 songs on Slave Ambient indeed have droning, meandering qualities, the hypnotic effects merely soften the album's working-class muscle and sharp hooks. Slave Ambient is a more focused, cohesive collection than sadly overlooked 2008 debut Wagonwheel Blues, and while the M.O. here is similar - roots-rock with an avant-garde shimmer - the execution is more confident. Where the debut's Americana inclinations could come across as a tad too quirky or affected, Slave Ambient drives Ford-tough.

Like some of its predecessors, Slave Ambient oscillates between sun-burnt psych-pop bliss-outs and disorienting instrumental interludes. Unlike most bands in the avant-garde mold, however, the War on Drugs have in Granduciel a vocalist whose throaty burr rambles casually in the all-American tradition of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Songs like "Baby Missiles," re-recorded here after an appearance on last year's Future Weather EP, boast the bombastic organs, stirring drums and passionate shouts of potential live show-stoppers, but they're cut nicely with the mellow reverb and uncanny production textures. As Granduciel observes on jangling road anthem "Brothers," "I'm rising in to the top of the line."

The American Band

Greatest Hits

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Tom Petty isn't a reference point that comes up much when talking about indie rock, but it's difficult to listen to the War on Drugs without his name crossing your mind. The strength of his best songs suggests the hipper-than-thou crowd should be looking to the Gainesville, Florida-born AOR-radio staple a little more often. Petty had his share of remarkable albums, both with backing band the Heartbreakers and on his own - the 1976 debut Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Jeff Lynne-produced 1989 solo debut Full Moon Fever and Rick Rubin-helmed 1994 comedown Wildflowers especially stand out - but the unfamiliar may be surprised at the consistently high level of this excellent best-of collection. The double-disc Anthology: Through the Years offers more breadth, but Greatest Hits gets right to the good stuff: jangly, rootsy rockers that anticipated Slave Ambient's even dreamier road anthems. Long before the War on Drugs' Granduciel was "drifting," Petty was, of course, "Free Fallin.'"

The Ambient Guru

Another Green World

Brian Eno

It's pretty safe to say that without Tom Petty, the War on Drugs might have been a very different band; without Brian Eno, though, it's hard to imagine how they could have existed. The mad scientist of British pop envisioned a world where music could be, as he put it in one famous manifesto, "as ignorable as it is interesting"; his experiments with technological innovations and elements of chance resulted in some of the best-ever fusions of rock and atmosphere, such as David Bowie's Low and Talking Heads' Remain in Light. But Another Green World, the solo album that saw Eno shifting from pop toward minimalism, is perhaps the album most relevant to the War on Drugs' latest. Like Slave Ambient, Another Green World alternates between delicate instrumentals and conventional pop songs, while at the same time taking enough sheer joy in sonic possibilities that even the aforementioned conventional pop songs aren't really so conventional at all. "All the clouds turn to words," Eno begins, free falling into a dreamworld.

The Kiwi Popsters

Daddy's Highway

The Bats

Sure, bands like the War on Drugs and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers have something about them that's distinctly American. But brilliant jangle-pop knows no borders. No hemispheres, either: In the 1980s, some of the most endearing guitar music was coming from New Zealand, especially the Christchurch label Flying Nun. The jagged Clean and the chiming Chills, both from Dunedin, may have had a bigger impact in the U.S., helping give birth to Pavement and American 1990s indie rock, but Christchurch's own Bats - including ex-Clean bass player Robert Scott - should never be overlooked. Their 1987 debut, Daddy's Highway, crystallizes the scrappy sound that has largely sustained the band well into the 2000s. Though the Bats tend to be both more concise and more eagerly catchy than the War on Drugs, the bittersweet wistfulness of the jaunty "Block of Wood" or the giddily soloing title track help make for another superb testament to the spirit of the open road.

The Lovelorn Druggie

Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space


Spiritualized's Jason Pierce has been mixing jittery rock 'n' roll thrum and minimalist psychedelic drone since before the War on Drugs were old enough to take a D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) class. In fact, Spacemen 3 - the band Pierce formed in the 1980s alongside co-songwriter Sonic Boom - had a few of the classics of the genre, foremost among them 1987's ecstatically doomed The Perfect Prescription and 1989's brilliantly bipolar Playing With Fire. Pierce's transcendence-through-drugs approach didn't reach its apotheosis, however, until his third studio album as Spiritualized, 1997's epic and devastating Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. Generally more focused than its predecessors, the album is also Pierce at his most majestic, expanding his genre-pilfering into gospel, blues, and atmospheric soul - all potential signposts for successors like the War on Drugs. This time, though, Pierce's narcotic worship is the defense mechanism of a broken heart. The voice of his longtime keyboardist and ex-girlfriend, Kate Radley, welcomes us into weightlessness in the opening seconds, and then never shows up by itself again over the next 70 minutes of lush, symphony-scale psych-rock. An alternate version of the title track, preferred by Pierce in concert, even quotes at length from a tenderly romantic Elvis ballad. Love, you see, is the drug.

The Basement Psych-Rockers

If the War on Drugs make roots-rock hypnotic, then Deerhunter's breakthrough album puts a similar slant on a whole bunch of less commercially successful genres. Frontman and Atlas Sound mainstay Bradford Cox certainly sees the similarity, having covered Kurt Vile for a free download earlier this year and put the former War on Drugs road warrior on a blog mix as far back as 2009. Like Another Green World and Slave Ambient, Cryptograms swerves back and forth between droney instrumentals and catchy songs, and it manages to succeed at both, especially as part of an album-length whole. If the instrumentals vary - some confrontational, some delicate - then so do the rockers, whether the clanging post-punk of the title track and "Lake Somerset" or the sweet jangle-pop of "Strange Lights" and "Heatherwood." Maybe this is what the War on Drugs would sound like if they didn't have cars: "I walk around like a walker," Cox coos on centerpiece "Spring Hall Convert," "And like a walker/ Always choosing where to go." Can't drive around with the windows down listening to FM radio? Might as well spend long teenage afternoons obsessing over obscure records. No direction home but home.