Classic Rock

The Classic Rock Catharsis of War on Drugs

The War on Drugs have achieved a classic rock synthesis.
The War on Drugs have achieved a classic rock synthesis. Shawn Brackbill
Want to start a fight with an indie rock snob?

Tell them there’s a War on Drugs song that sounds like Journey, one of ’80s radio rock’s most dominant forces.

Why are those sparring words, exactly?

Because fans erring on the snooty side of music appreciation don’t have much of a middle ground. They tend to prefer their favorites either likened to esoteric acts or sandwiched between legendary giants with critical cachet.
Those picky people might not like the Journey reference, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

War on Drugs songs like “An Ocean Between the Waves” on 2014’s Lost in the Dream are reminiscent of Journey tracks like “Ask the Lonely.” Layers rest atop a driving, poppy drum beat that steadily plows ahead while slick, higher-register riffs slice into the song.

It’s not surprising. You’ll hear a lot of classic rock in War on Drugs’ style, alongside the airy atmospheric sounds and winding psychedelia. That’s been the case since the Philadelphia band’s beginning and has remained a constant through big lineup changes, like the departure of co-founder Kurt Vile back in 2009.

You might place the blame — or credit — for that blend of sounds on Adam Granduciel. He fronts the band, plays guitar, and handles the bulk of the songwriting.
Vocally, he channels Bob Dylan on the regular. In earlier songs like “Come to the City” and “Brothers,” he’s clearly aware of those pitchy tones Dylan is known for, along with his signature ability to stretch the ending of one word through multiple measures of music.

What’s nice, though, is that Granduciel knows when to step off.

Whether it’s in the instrumentation or the singing, there’s always a sense that Granduciel is fully invested. His references sound like deep tributes from a person who’s spent a lot of years flipping records, ears locked between a pair of headphones with a solid grip.

There’s a sense of comfort in the band’s ability to filter psychedelic, artsy, and trippy sounds à la Pink Floyd and the hooky bar-band sensibilities of Marshall Crenshaw into a song.

Even on frenetic numbers like “Baby Missiles” from the 2010 Future Weather EP, there’s a blanket of calm that absorbs you. And if War on Drugs utilizes influences, this song in particular proves how they also inspire. Take a listen to Oklahoma indie rockers Broncho’s 2014 hit “Class Historian,” for the same persistent beat paired with rigid, choppy vocals.

That peaceful thread ziplines through the band’s first three full-lengths and a couple EPs released since 2008. But that mood feels fully realized on the band’s latest release.

It’s like Granduciel and crew slid down that wire with aim, took a soft landing into 2017’s A Deeper Understanding, settled in, and called it home.

Hell, even the title suggests a trip toward discovery.

The songs feel broad and resolved. Each one takes its time, with the majority of the tracks topping the six-minute mark. “Thinking of a Place” is nearly twice that length and loaded with achingly gorgeous guitar work that’s impossible not to follow to the end.

As Granduciel sings, “And the light it shines / And I’m thinking of a place / And it feels so very real / Just moving through the dark,” it feels hopeful.

It feels as if, in the band finding composure, they’ve taken an inherent and prevalent sonic serenity and invited listeners to enjoy it from within, unlocking some doors and busting down walls.

War on Drugs are no more vulnerable than usual, just sharing it with a refreshing frankness that brings you into their zone of comfort.

War on Drugs are scheduled to perform at The Van Buren on Wednesday, April 18. Tickets are $31. Califone opens.

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Amy Young is an arts and culture writer who also spends time curating arts-related exhibits and events, and playing drums in local bands French Girls and Sturdy Ladies.
Contact: Amy Young