The War On Drugs
The War On Drugs trajectory over the past few years has been gathering pace and has accelerated even further with their latest album release, I Don’t Live Here Anymore and the single of the same name which received plenty of air play back in the autumn of 2021. This combination explains why the O2 Academy is at nearly full capacity and is the largest gig I have been to since lockdown. The band begin with a slower opener, Old Skin, that is taken from the new album, and as the song kicks in, you are hit with the rich depth of sound produced by the musicians that floods the venue. This intensity flows throughout the performance, all instruments beautifully mixed by the sound engineer to ensure the audience can appreciate the intricacies of the band’s soundscapes.
Founding member and main songwriter, Adam Granduciel is the focal point of the band, oozing out his smooth luscious vocals that wash over you bringing every song a soothing essence irrespective of the lyrical content. A prime example is the next track Pain, a song based around the physical pain that Granduciel experienced when he had an operation on his ruptured disc yet he could have been lulling you into a serene state rather than exploring excruciating agony. The War On Drugs set list darts between their albums, utilising changes in tempo to take the audience on an experiential journey.
The driving drumbeat heralds An Ocean In Between The Waves, with its sporadic guitar interludes which lead to a superb guitar solo shows their willingness to carry the audience on a voyage. Granduciel is not afraid of an extended guitar solo at various points throughout tracks, often placed towards the end to create a crescendo and intense finale and, in this case, unlike the recording, which has an abrupt ending, the live performance ends in a wall of distortion. Victim is another song that evidences the power of the guitar solo along with its keyboard arpeggios and the gathering pace, producing the distinctive The War On Drugs sound – repetitive elements that are carefully constructed to take the listener on an sonic journey allowing them to lose themselves in the underlying rhythm as the solos wash over you.
As a band, they know when to linger between songs to allow for a seamless segue or whether Granduciel is planning to address the audience whether it be to introduce other musicians, thank the crew and support acts or tell stories about an increasingly tall man threatening to beat him up if he didn’t play Arms Like Boulders. After the popular Red Eyes with its phenomenal riff, whoop, and dynamics, many of the audience seem to struggle with the delicacy of Living Proof. A much quieter and fragile song than those that have gone before, without the wall of sound it is hard to hear the vocal line and beautiful piano melody that effectively follows it due to the volume of chatter throughout the stalls. As the guitar solo kicks in, Granduciel is shrouded in a single white spotlight making the gut wrenching emotion even more prominent.
As on the album, Living Proof flows into Harmonia’s Dream with its keyboard line, which wouldn’t be missed placed in a Prince song from the 1980’s. Again showing how skilfully songs are constructed as The War On Drugs are adept at producing music that could easily cross the line into a power ballad, yet the construction always keeps the piece the right side, preventing a cliché. One of the band’s earlier tracks, Come To The City, is a real high point of the evening. The pounding drums and swell of the keyboards generate a phenomenal background to higher pitched vocal melody that lead to a work of art you hope will never end, the sign of a superb track.
The War On Drugs ability to produce anthemic tracks leads to a crowd pleasing duet of Under The Pressure and I Don’t Live Here Anymore. Under The Pressure has such a simple keyboard riff which is ridiculously effective and crafts a song that allows for total escapism, yet somehow it turned into a football chant as the piece surges to its pinnacle which caused my heart to sink. Whereas I Don’t Live Here Anymore has an upbeat vibe musically reminiscent of Stevie Nicks and lyrically Bruce Springsteen, with beautiful female backing vocals which really bring the chorus to its zenith. It is a ludicrously catchy song that has a dark element with beautifully descriptive words such as “a creature void of form” combined to create an epic pop song. After some superb harmonica playing in Eyes To The Wind, The War On Drugs continue with the weather theme by unleashing a cover of Neil Young’s Like A Hurricane.
It’s a brave move to embark on such a classic record, yet, The War On Drugs produce a sparkling rendition, staying faithful to the original but with a silky voice rather than the coarse nature of Young’s vocals. Granduciel has been clock watching the last 20 minutes of the gig to see how many songs he can fit in before the curfew and you get a sense he would happily push the 11pm deadline until he finds out it is a £10k fine and then he finishes the set with an abbreviated version of Occasional Rain. After over 2 hours of fine music without a break, you have to applaud The War On Drugs for giving the audience value for money. My frustration is that I would always love to be watching them outside on a warm summer’s evening, lying on the grass as the sun sets which would allow me to become fully engrossed in the music instead of being inside a venue and struggling to see the stage.
Review by Toni Woodward
photograph by Shawn Brackbill, courtesy of PR