Rock music has seen a decline in relevance over the past few decades. This was partially inevitable, because public tastes move in cycles and no one was quite living up to the examples set by The Who, The Doors and, kings of kings, Led Zeppelin. Not only were those bands pushing records and selling out arenas, they were also totally insane and badass. Their exploits are lore, as the advent of omniscient tabloids had yet to dawn.
Of course, some of the greatest rockers of all time succeeded and were contemporary to those early legends: Hendrix, Prince, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, not to mention Guns & Roses, Nirvana, Sonic Youth and more. But it’s safe to say that the culture of rock has receded as a mainstream force, especially as metal has fractured into too many sub genres to count and become a relatively niche pursuit (don’t know any metal, huh? Kylesa and Mastadon are accessible to newcomers).
Arcade Fire’s “upset” Album of the Year Grammy win in 2011 was painted as a triumphant return for rock, but perhaps it augured in the other direction: that indie had been culturally appropriated by the masses. That narrative argues that the win wasn’t an upset at all, but actually the recognition that independent bands were no longer necessarily at a disadvantage to those with label deals, largely due to streaming, sharing and novel e-commerce and distribution strategies. Saying a band is “indie” no longer seems to refer to a contract status, and rather to an image (born from a mélange of art students, hipsters, rich kids and style bloggers).
It’s hard to rank rock bands today. The Who are still touring. Is Beck eligible? What do we do with country? I’m not going to try.
Here’s what I know: The War On Drugs is one of the best rock bands around, and they aren’t getting their due. Since 2008, the band has released three album and two EPs, all of them filled with recognizable sonic elements. Frontman Adam Granduciel ambles like Dylan, and surges like Springsteen. Their discography, while diverse (and including some excellent ambient/drone tracks), often evokes the emotive, noisey rock of The Cure and Arcade Fire, or the pseudo-ballad of Smashing Pumpkins.
“Red Eyes,” the lead single off the just-released “Lost In A Dream,” is an exercise in real rock. Not hard, not soft; lush yet restrained; and featuring ripping guitars. The mastering is expert (supposedly it took Granuciel much longer to master the song than to write and record it) and neither the poetic lyrics nor their earnest tone have a hint of pretention.
I encourage you to seek out live studio video, especially the set featured on KCRW radio’s Morning Becomes Eclectic show. The War On Drugs are at home in the studio, with perfect sound and an informal atmosphere. But I can imagine they’ll blow the roof off many a venue this summer and beyond.