AAs frontman Adam Granduciel notes from the stage, 10 years ago War on Drugs played in a small venue at the Corsica Studios nightclub in London. Now here they are: Grammy winners packing the O2, a rise no one would have bet on, even when critics started screaming about the Philadelphia band Lost in the Dream’s 2014 album. No one gets a clue about the charismatic or visually personable performers, and they’re strangers to the dark art of projecting your personality onto ZZ. They also don’t distract with captivating production: there are two video screens that exclusively show what’s happening on stage, a low-key light show, and that’s it.
Yet, musically, their ascent into what musicians called “the sheds” has a strange meaning. Their songs recall a strain of 80s Big Rock, most obviously Bruce Springsteen – a similarity reinforced by the presence of a baritone sax – but also the long improvisations on Dire Straits Alchemy live album, the car stereo companion from the hip dad around 1984. At the other extreme, they evoke the tense rhythms and electronic exploration of Krautrock, their devotion to the sound of 70s West Germany written into the title of Harmonia’s Dream.
It’s a combination that looks ridiculous on paper, but works so well live that you wonder why no one thought of it sooner. The melodies roar anthemically, complete with air-inducing parting synth lines, building up to long finales spiced up with pyrotechnic guitar solos. Motorized beats drive everything relentlessly, and electronic intros and interludes – often extended live – provide teasing and anticipated dynamic shifts and pleasingly WTF? moments. It’s hard not to be struck by the strangeness of sitting in London’s largest indoor venue listening to a band that, at the time, sounds remarkably like kosmische Cluster experimenters.
That there’s something for everyone here is reflected in the audience, which ranges from hipsters in their twenties to men old enough to remember the day Mark Knopfler first put on his headband. The improbability of their sound cocktail leads to moments when the usual logic of arena rock is upside down. During an enthusiastically received Under the Pressure, the music shifts to a lower gear and without a beat. A spotlight draws attention to drummer Charlie Hall and the audience shouts in traditional style. But Hall does not play solo. He just hammers his hi-hat metronomically. Then the song comes to life, struggling to be heard despite the roar of the crowd.