Live Review: The War On Drugs, Purling Hiss
October 14, 2011, The Earl, Atlanta
by Eric Wildes
Purling Hiss was stylistically unusual in the sense that they seem to be trying to capture the essence of about twenty-five years ago. While many bands are doing their best to update a sound from the ’80’s synth-rock, Purling Hiss is clearly trying to capture the tones and emotion I associate with guitar sounds of ’80’s hair bands.
However, the vocals are far from resembling those glitzy days, eschewing the dainty sounds of for hard-rocking howls and grungy hoots. As you might expect, there were some moments of blissful shredding, plenty of acrobatic riffs from the C.C. Deville catalog (in a fun way) and more than a few toe-tapping moments where people seemed genuinely transfixed by the unpretentious approach to just letting the rock and roll flow straight from the whammy bar to the audience.
There were also some stretches where I personally felt like I had maybe just heard that riff used in the last song. Mike Pollize and crew faced some challenges during the set. From the vocal microphone failing, to (what appeared to be) a low-E string breaking during a song, he handled the adversity well. In the latter case, he stopped the song mid-strum and exchanged his guitar- for one that seemed louder one of course. He started over with new vigor, at which point I’m sure that I heard someone in the audience mutter and enthusiastic “rock and roll” to no one in particular.
While I can’t say that I personally loved the guitar tone or heavy use of the wah-wah pedal as primary effects tool, I enjoyed most of Purling Hiss’ set. I do wish that they had worked some of the lighter ballads from the end of the show into the long sections of shredding during the set. It would have been a nice contrast in my opinion.
The War on Drugs took the stage looking to show off their new album, Slave Ambient. The set up on stage was a veritable smorgasbord of instruments, pedals, and amps all connected by an interstate of cables. I have to admit I was a bit shocked and definitely in awe of the sheer amount of items on stage. As they were setting up, I wanted to ask if I could get up there and take a closer look at all of the gear which felt a bit like an art gallery. Fortunately I realized that would be gauche even by my crude definition of proper etiquette.
From the first sound of the set, I was immediately taken aback by how good the sound actually was, especially at the front of the stage. Lately, I don’t always agree with the Earl’s sound guy’s interpretation of what constitutes a balanced sound, but he nailed this one right in the heart.
I hate to risk being accused of hyperbole in a review, but this show was so great, that I feel compelled to praise it effusively. As The War on Drugs started playing, a palpable shift in mood overtook the venue. The lights were suddenly cooler, the crowd was bigger and locked in, and the atmosphere seemed to morph into something darkly extraordinary for an otherwise ordinary Thursday night. Luckily, that feeling held true throughout the show.
The set got underway and Adam Granduciel’s snaking upper-body shifted like a pendulum as he played guitar and chopped through the set with his trademark-syncopated vocals. His guitar work was tasteful and he shifted fluidly from the roles of rhythm guitarist to lead melody maker.
Throughout the course of the set Granduciel would also mix in harmonica parts, and tweak the knobs of various loops, and effects. The harmoica parts cleverly placed within the hazy drones, were powerful.
The drummer for The War on Drugs, Steve Urgo, is as precise as I’ve seen anywhere. Again, I’m sure that sounds like an exaggeration. His focus seemed impenetrable whether working with samples and headphones or just straight up. The understated precision of Urgo (in tandem with the aforementioned sibilant vocals from Granduciel) seemed largely responsible for the crisp head bobbing I saw from an Atlanta audience notoriously too self-conscious to move any body parts at live shows.
Dave Hartley and Robbie Bennett were also excellent in their roles. Bennett, a power forward on the keyboards and backing guitars, added grace to the ambient (and somewhat “shoe gaze”) element of the band. His massive reach seemed to span twelve keys per hand at times. Hartley held his own on the bass and his herky-jerky movements were fun to watch. He also caught my eye when he added a haunting trumpet part during a rather avant-garde interlude.
Highlights of the show included “Brothers”, “Your Love is Calling My Name” and “Baby Missles”, but perhaps those are just my favorites from the newest album.
This was one of the best shows I have seen at the Earl in recent memory. It seems unlikely that a band could get better after losing the conspicuous talent of someone like Kurt Vile, but that is exactly what The War on Drugs has done in my opinion.
The new album is their most complete effort to date. In addition to that, the live performance is a great example of how powerful a band can be when a group of talented musicians hit their stride on stage.
With this type of synergy, The War on Drugs should continue to win the love of even casual musical acquaintances at their shows and the arrow should continue pointing up for this crew for the foreseeable future.
Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Tim Lampe of imabearetc.com for use of the photo.
Editor’s Note: Eric Wildes is a senior writer for DeadJournalist.com. A writer, musician and teacher, you can follow him on Twitter: @Elvis_Skinner.
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