By Phil Pucci
Oct. 19 2014
Last Wednesday, Philadelphia indie rockers The War on Drugs played The Orange Peel in Asheville. The band has been having a celebrated, banner year, releasing their third studio album Lost in the Dream (Secretly Canadian) to unanimous critical acclaim. It’s an album you will shortly be seeing on many year-end lists on indie blogs and high-profile magazines alike. Their current world tour has been nonstop since May, which began in Europe. I hadn’t visited Asheville in awhile and was overcome with a vague sense of familiarity walking downtown. I have only ever gone to Asheville with the purpose of seeing a band that I love – to me, it’s a mythical place that has treated me with nothing but great experiences.
The evening started with Peter Matthew Bauer (of The Walkmen) with his backing band The Devourers. Touring in support of his recently-released debut album Liberation!, Bauer & co. ripped through a set that revealed how vital of a role he plays in The Walkmen, who last year announced their “extreme hiatus.” Bauer’s bright and shimmery guitar tone was familiar, as was the band dress code: Disheveled-Formal. His vocals took a back seat to the band’s galloping drumbeats and uncompromisingly repetitive rhythms. The band played a solid set that effectively set the tone for what was to follow, with booming guitar-heavy jams and half-shouted vocals.
By the time The War on Drugs took the stage, The Orange Peel was packed. It felt like a sellout. It felt like the right city to see The War on Drugs: their at-once anthemic and pensive songs could soundtrack a night out in Asheville. Frontman Adam Granduciel was playing a Strat-style 12-string guitar, which he later giddily announced was bought that morning in Nashville. The band revealed several distinctive influences which all come together decorously live. At their core, the songs were rooted deeply in Americana and classic rock. But they were also padded with psychedelic flourishes and droned shoegaze. Early in the set, Drugs played Lost in the Dream opener “Under the Pressure,” which began and ended with an extended ambient guitar and synth section, the kind of quiet-loud-quiet sandwich that comes straight from the My Bloody Valentine playbook. When the song’s driving, delayed piano groove came in out of the drone-haze, it was thunderous, and received a roar from an energized crowd – it produced the first of a few pronounced climaxes of the performance.
The War on Drugs have caught their stride as a Wall of Sound band. They hesitate to let their music breathe, preferring instead to fill holes with astonishingly frequent guitar solos. Granduciel is often characterized as shy, reserved and anxious, but he is not reluctant to let his instrument wail and screech onstage. He even slipped in a howling solo during the band’s triumphant cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue.” What if Dylan’s “going electric” sounded like that?
Although the band’s roots may be planted in rock and roll, throughout the evening they exhibited that they are also heavily influenced by electronic music. Granduciel, like his former bandmate Kurt Vile, who left the group after their debut album Wagonwheel Blues to pursue his solo career, has a penchant for building songs from a foundation of drum machine samples. They are the kind of bouncy, sped-up beats you could perhaps find on a Casio keyboard. This hyper-repetitive approach to songcraft lets eight-mintues-plus jams seem to breeze by. It was staggering how many times The War on Drugs created and resolved tension – it’s the same effect that makes house music seem to slow down time.
I felt increasingly elated as the show unfolded, and wondered if “blissing out” is the shoegaze equivalent to punk’s moshing or hardcore’s slam dancing. “Maybe,” I thought, “but it’s probably really fucking lame to acknowledge it as a real thing, like bringing up someone’s Facebook status in a face-to-face conversation or something.” Anyway, that’s what I did at The War on Drugs concert last Wednesday. I blissed out. At one point in between songs, Adam Granduciel commented that he loved coming to Asheville and gave a shout out to local shop Harvest Records. I wonder if he has that same romantic feeling about the Asheville that I do.
Listen to “Lost In The Dream” by The War On Drugs