Nine years after The War on Drugs formed, they released the album Lost in the Dream. Previous records were regarded as unfashionably hip but never threatened to break the band and the momentum seemed to have followed Kurt Vile after he left in 2009. All that changed in 2014. The band broke through the glass ceiling with Lost in the Dream, dominating the alternative music scene and appearing on all manner of best of lists around the world. High profile tours and an ubiquity on the festival circuit ensured that the next eighteen months cemented this status. The band then retreated to the studio to record that difficult follow-up record. Eventually, at the end of the summer A Deeper Understanding arrived and although it is a less immediate record compared to its predecessor, once you explore the many layers and textures which have been so very finely crafted, it’s true beauty begins to emerge. Tonight’s show in Manchester was going to be a fascinating opportunity to see how the stratum of the band’s new songs would translate in the live arena.
Accompanying Adam Granduciel and co. on the European leg of the tour are Canadian band The Barr Brothers. If anything, their latest record Queen of the Breakers resonated more directly with me than A Deeper Understanding upon its release just a few weeks ago. Representing a crystallization of themes and character and blessed with one of the best songs of the entire year in the form of You Would Have to Lose Your Mind, the pairing seemed like perfection. Sadly, it seems that the quality of this release has passed many by and the early stage time means that a lot of the sold out audience are still to arrive. The lack of attention being paid is compounded by questionable acoustics which do not always do the band’s epic soundscapes the justice they deserve. Opening with the aforementioned You Would Have to Lose Your Mind, the song has the power to halt a conversation at a hundred yards on record but this evening the ghostly murmur of the track’s intro is lost and Brad Barr’s vocals are difficult to catch. As the track swells to its vast conclusion, aspects of its haunting force begin to emerge as the sinewy guitar increases in amplitude to match Barr’s progressively fervent vocals, but it is still an oddly inconspicuous opening for such a great track. Older tracks like 2014’s Love Ain’t Enough follow, but some of the most potent on the new album such as the uptempo Queen of the Breakers are absent, which seems like a missed opportunity. The band will be back in Manchester in the new year and I have no doubt that in a more intimate venue, the scope and musical inventiveness that exists on record will shine.
Apart from the vaguely comparable vocal inflections that Adam Granduciel shares, the Bruce Springsteen similarity has always seemed a bit tenuous and when The War on Drugs open with In Chains this belief is reinforced. The arrangements are more satisfyingly byzantine, and in next tracks Holding On and the emotional Pain, more intricately crafted to thrill and the organic nature of the many serpentine guitar solos that these songs are blessed with are rewarded by reverential applause.
The first half of this evening’s set is largely dominated by tracks from A Deeper Understanding but An Ocean in Between the Waves marks a welcome return to Lost in the Dream and the familiarity with the song’s metronomic beat and opening guitar strains causes a ripple of excitement in the 3,500 capacity venue. It is this song more than most on this record that manifests Granduciel’s deference for all manner of things and all the thrills of the song on record are present and correct in this magnus opus. If anything however, this approach is at times just a bit too clinical, and with very little interaction in-between songs, there is a danger that the band seem to be going through the motions, albeit very well oiled and finely fabricated ones. Thankfully, a trip down memory lane with the more rambunctious and Dylan-esque Buenos Aires Beach adds some pleasing diversity to proceedings but it is Under the Pressure, just prior to the encore that provides the most satisfying charge of the evening. We all know what’s coming for several minutes as the songs’s atmospheric intro is elongated tantalizingly and there is a guttural whoop from the crowd once the beat eventually kicks in, but the real pleasure occurs as the song morphs from its tangible composition into something beautifully monstrous as Granduciel develops the song’s natural conclusion into a vast feedback driven soundscape which is augmented by swirling synths and haunting horns that refuse to surrender to Granduciel undulating feedback. It is this song’s truly mesmerising organic constitution that proves to be the most satisfying element of the evening, adding to the overall majesty and sublime musicianship demonstrated by everyone involved.
Read our review of The Barr Brothers’ Queen of the Breakers here.
Review by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto