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By 1995 - just five years after they'd broken through - Alice In Chains was in serious trouble. While the remaining bandmembers have since admitted that they all partied quite a bit, singer Layne Staley's drug addiction had advanced at a terrifying rate and stopped the band in its tracks in many ways; they only made sporadic appearances, writing had basically stopped and everyone was running damage control rather than trying to get things in line. It was a scary time - not much touring was done in support of the band's third album at all - and, when Alice In Chains did announce that they were going on an indefinite hiatus until such time as Staley's health improved, no one was surprised. Unfortunately, that never happened. The singer's state continued to deteriorate until, finally, Staley was found dead in his Seattle condominium on on April 20, 2002. He was thirty-four years old.
After such tragic circumstances, no one was surprised when Alice In Chains stayed on hiatus; with the death of their singer, it made sense that the band wouldn't try to continue, and Cantrell, Kinney and Inez upheld that stance for years; Cantrell continued with the solo career he'd started with Boggy Depot in 1998, Sean Kinney formed the short-lived project Spys4Darwin and started a Willie Nelson tribute band with Johnny Cash, Kim Thayil of Soundgarden and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana, while Mike Inez dove into sideman work and played with Slash's Snakepit as well as Black Label Society. The three surviving members of the band would re-unite to play on Jerry Cantrell's solo records [1998's Boggy Depot and 2002's Degradation Trip -ed], but no mention was made of restarting the Alice In Chains engines.
...That is, there was no talk of pulling AIC out of mothballs, until they did. In 2005, Jerry Cantrell, Mike Inez, and Sean Kinney reunited to perform a benefit concert in Seattle for victims of the tsunami disaster which struck South Asia. The band featured Damageplan singer Pat Lachman, as well as a few special guests including both Maynard James Keenan of Tool/A Perfect Circle, and Ann Wilson of Heart. Shortly thereafter, Comes with the Fall singer William DuVall was spotted with the band and, in 2008, it was announced that Alice In Chains was working on a new record with DuVall on vocals. The album, Black Gives Way To Blue was released on September 25, 2009 to glowing reviews and so began the next evolution of Alice In Chains; while no one in the group has gone so far as to say that everything is firing on all cylinders yet and the band has been permanently reconvened, the excitement around this new incarnation of the group has spoken for itself; this phoenix has risen from the ashes.
This is Part Two of Ground Control's Alice In Chains discography review. For Part One, click here .
Alice in Chains
(Columbia/Sony Music, 1995)
If indeed Jar of Flies turned out to be the gateway that got so many more people hooked on Alice in Chains, it can only be said that the band's self-titled album implies withdrawals or a sense of significant unease or discomfort. The signs that something is just not right appear everywhere both on and in Alice in Chains; the front cover features a photo of a three-legged dog (one too few) while the back cover presents a picture of a three-legged mandolinist (one too many). The album's liner notes feature images of ghastly, contorted fairies with no flesh on their arms, sinister, personified bottles swimming through black oceans, cartoons of mutant animals standing on trial, synthetic limbs and more. They are images of turmoil, disease and discomfort, and it's difficult to look at them.
And then there is the music on the record.
The vibes of disease and discomfort implied by the album's artwork continue as, after the crunching-yet-dissonant intro to “Grind,” Layne Staley presents listeners with the ultimatum, “You'd be well advised not to plan my funeral before the body dies.”
Worried yet? You should be – even over a decade later, “Grind” is thoroughly disconcerting; and the going gets darker from there.
While the stylistic difference between the songs written by Staley and Jerry Cantrell were always easy enough to spot through Alice in Chains' other albums, the differences between them are night and day on Alice in Chains – if one assumes it's a gray, sort of drizzly day and a night filled with gale-force winds and torrential downpours. At its brightest and most reassuring is “Over Now” – and that's the song, which closes out the record. As Alice in Chains' manager told Greg Prato for Grunge is Dead, “It was pretty painful putting [Alice in Chains' third album] together. It took eight or nine months – hours and hours of waiting for Layne to come out of the bathroom. Days of waiting for him to show up at the studio.
“...It was a really painful session because it took so long. It was horrifying to see [Layne] in that condition. Yet, when he was cognizant, he was the sweetest, bright-eyed guy you'd ever want to meet. To be in a meeting with him and have him fall asleep in front of you was gut-wrenching.”
Understanding Staley's circumstances during the sessions actually helps to understand the shape design and performances on the album. While Staley is credited with writing the lyrics for nine of the album's twelve tracks and even garners a music writing credit for “Head Creeps,” it's not always easy to point to the singer's actual performances on the album. Part of that might have to do with the fact that Staley's voice is so heavily treated with effects (his vocals are multi-layered and pitch-shifted on “Sludge Factory,” so distorted the singer's vocals sound like a beehive at times on “Head Creeps” and more), but part of it also has to do with the fact that the singer's style has changed here; syllables are spat regularly, some letters are almost hissed through... he sounds almost feral and it's more eerie and surreal. At the same time though, listeners will stay with the album, wide-eyed through every passing second – as difficult as it may be to hear sometimes. As much an act of aural pathetic fallacy as Alice in Chains is, it's important to point out that, pound-for-pound, these twelve songs are still twelve of the best that the band has ever done; the epitome of the creative force that always drove the band (battles against personal demons, substance abuse, self-disgust, depression and aggression all weigh heavily on every song here) realized to its natural conclusion.
And the dead giveaway that no one really got it? Fans cheered Layne Staley on – even as emotionally naked and clearly in trouble as he was – and Alice in Chains shot to number one again on the Billboard chart. No one outside of the band's innermost circle was given reason to be concerned but, listening back now with the benefit of hindsight, there's no question that they should have been.
Alice in Chains
MTV Unplugged CD/DVD
(Columbia/Sony Music, 1996; Columbia/Sony Music/Legacy, 2007)
It’s a little chilling when you realize that there aren’t many alt-rock bands that crossed the MTV Unplugged stage that aren’t missing a member or are completely defunct now (Nirvana and Soul Asylum come to mind), but revisiting Alice in Chains’ set eleven years after the show happened is particularly gut-wrenching for those familiar with Layne Staley’s story. Unplugged was the first show that AIC had done in three years at that time and, while the performance was fantastic, it’s easy to see why in retrospect: from the moment he sits down, Staley appears as two steps from being a walking corpse and, missing most of his top teeth (MTV tried to shoot around this, the clearest shot is during "Would?" and even that is pretty obscure), it’s a testament to the power of his voice that such an incredible sound could come out of a mouth that barely moves.
But there is that voice. The Unplugged performance happened almost six years to the day prior to the discovery of Staley’s body and, at that point, his voice had not yet left him (that would happen soon after as anyone that heard AIC’s sets when they opened for Kiss can attest); in spite of the obvious hindrances, he delivered a career-defining show. The band too – those acoustic EPs really paid off when it came time to arrange some of these songs – Sean Kinney’s comparatively spare drumming and Mike Inez’ fluid, often melodic bass yield the perfect platform for Staley and Jerry Cantrell and handily flesh out songs for which distortion was such a key ingredient (“Sludge Factory,” “Would?” and “Got Me Wrong” particularly).
Looking back, the Unplugged show was pretty much the last gasp for Alice in Chains before Layne Staley committed himself to chasing the dragon into oblivion but, at that time, no one knew that – it was just a great, magical show. Now, it’s all the more valuable because of the events between the date the show was played and April 5, 2002 (the date that Staley’s body was found); they’d never do a show this good again and not many bands who did Unplugged after them would do anything as powerful – for Alice in Chains, Unplugged was a beautiful stitch in time.
Alice in Chains
Nothing Safe: Best of the Box
(Columbia/Sony Music, 1999)
With Alice in Chains having been on a self-imposed extended hiatus for several years already (the band's set on Unplugged was a very rare appearance) by the time rumors of a best-of compilation box set began to circulate, their record label decided to hedge its bets and do the conventional box set after a best of the box release. In the most wryly professional terms, such a plan made sense; with the band off the road indefinitely, they weren't in a position to promote it so, rather than blow a wad of money on manufacturing, Columbia elected instead to gauge interest with a bit of bait and, presumably, use a portion of the revenue generated to fund the larger set. While many fans probably don't want to hear it, the logic for this makes good business sense. As it would turn out though, the interest was actually more than anyone accounted for; Nothing Safe: The Best of the Box was certified platinum by the RIAA in reasonably short order and, unlike its larger counterpart, has never fallen out of print (Music Bank has been in and out of circulation several times over since its release) since it was first issued. It's also worth pointing out that, while a succession of Alice in Chains best-of compilations would surface in the years following the release of Nothing Safe, this album was first and (strictly from a numbers standpoint) has been the best-received.
To its credit, Nothing Safe is a solid compilation of odds, ends, live tracks, studio cuts, soundtrack appearances and rarities, which serves its purpose for giving 'in-passing' fans a pretty enjoyable set but, as is the case with so many other comps of its type, this album is defined more by what's absent from it than what's present. While diehard fans will appreciate the inclusions of “What the Hell Have I” (which appeared previously on the Last Action Hero soundtrack), the raucous demo version of “We Die Young” and a really good live version of “Rooster,” they'll question why the Unplugged version of “Got Me Wrong” merited inclusion above all the other cuts from the show, and why (other than maybe to fill a time/track number requirement) “Iron Gland” needed revisiting. These questions will likely never be definitively answered, but answers aren't always essential; it's always easy enough to skip a song on a CD if it is abhorrent in some way and, really, there's no shortage of gold to be found on Nothing Safe – a solid, if superficial, release.
Alice in Chains
Music Bank box set
(Columbia/Sony Music, 1999)
With Nothing Safe having proven to be a far better seller than anyone could possibly have expected (the album was certified platinum – a rare occurrence for comps of its type), Columbia elected to go ahead with the release of the Music Bank box set on October 26, 1999.
While Nothing Safe had hinted that there might be some excellent stuff left sitting in the band's vault, completist fans were overjoyed by this box set at the time of its release; the compilation represented the first wide release of some of the band's early demos that had been only available on CDs and tapes sold off the stage before the band's label signing (including “Social Parasite,” “Whatcha Gonna Do” and “I Can't Have You Blues”) as well as highly sought after early takes of songs like “Sea of Sorrow” and “Rooster,” in addition to remixes, two brand new songs and filled out by album tracks, and what's really surprising is the quality of all of them. Unlike the touch and go nature of some of the demos that would be found later on Nirvana's With the Lights Out box set, each of the songs on Music Bank are full-band recordings done at full-service studios (no four-track recordings here) with the greatest significance being the slightly more stripped down (read: not at all over-produced) sound of them. In that way, what listeners get is a purer form of AIC, which focuses on the construction of the songs and not the outward trappings of them and illustrates just how fine the band's songwriting could be as a result. Even better (at the time), listeners were offered hope in the form of two brand new, just-recorded songs – “Get Born Again” and “Died” – which imply that the band wasn't throwing in the towel just yet; they were still creating, even if no plans to come back to full active duty had materialized just yet.
It's unfortunate that it couldn't last though. To date, Music Bank has gone in and out of print a few times since its first release, thereby once again making those early demos unavailable.
Alice in Chains
Music Bank – The Videos DVD
(Columbia/Sony Music, 2000)
Again, for the discriminating fan, Columbia Records parted out another portion of Alice in Chains' Music Bank box set, a DVD compilation which includes all of the band's music videos, a short documentary of the band's life prior to signing with Columbia and some behind-the-scenes, in-the-studio and onstage footage. When one itemizes it that way, it ends up sounding a whole lot more dull than it actually is; as one watches the material, it's possible to get a really revealing look at the band's overall mindset, the art direction applied to metal bands through the Eighties and early Nineties, and how Alice in Chains helped to change those conventions as they got more popular.
Looking at the videos themselves feels a little like an act of gallows humor now, eleven years after this DVD's release and as much as twenty-one years after the first video included was shot, because there's no question that values and presentations have changed in music videos in that time. The earliest of those included here, “Man in the Box,” “Sea of Sorrow,” “Would?,” “Them Bones” and two different takes on “We Die Young” all conform to metal methodology for presentation (band members standing around looking tough/imposing/awkward to a soundtrack of their own making) and seem a little funny now, when one considers the values and production styles applied to sell a band to its potential audience. Here (unlike in the videos for “Even Flow” by Pearl Jam and the original video for Nirvana's “In Bloom”), the objective is to present the band and image they wish to convey and not much else but, shortly thereafter, things begin to get more interesting.
As the “Rooster” video kicks over (including the discussion portion between Jerry Cantrell and his father – which was usually cut from MTV broadcasts for length and time constraints), there is a sudden shift in convention which proves to be very important in the context of the overall aesthetic of AIC's video output: there's suddenly a storyline and images to support it here. This wasn't unheard of at the time on MTV (remember Guns N' Roses' video for “November Rain?”), but it was a decidedly important change for Alice in Chains; after that, videos for “Down in a Hole,” “Grind,” “Heaven Beside You” and “Again” all get more visually provocative as the contrasts between light and dark help to more the videos along and make them more dramatic and emotionally engaging.
That engagement continues and is even heightened by the between-video content on MBTC. Set up (for the most part) more like an extended promo package for the band than a utilitarian collection of videos, MBTV splices personal bits of footage caught backstage between and around the music videos produced for songs including “Man in the Box,” “Would?,” “Them Bones” and “Grind,” viewers feel as though they're really being given an inside piece of the band. In watching those, viewers discover that not everything about Alice in Chains was as dark as fans were led to believe between listening to the music and the media's coverage of them; those backstage/offstage bits of footage included show how goofy, funny and personable the individual members of the band could be. Here, they laugh and play and act just like every other group of twenty-something guys lucky enough to get paid to make music for a living, it's when they come together on a song and the lights go out that they're all business; the monsters of rock that fans are well-familiar with. That dichotomy is very clearly shown here, and makes for pretty interesting viewing; Alice in Chains could be a dark or light or heartfelt or feral entity, but the band members were real people too. That humanizing effect turns out to be the most valuable aspect of this collection turns out to be the most valuable part of this collection; as much lore has been built up around the band – the drugs, the music, the metal, the rock n' roll insanity – Alice in Chains was a group of friends first. That gets overlooked a lot, but is a cornerstone element for Music Bank – The Videos.
Alice in Chains
(Columbia/Sony Music, 2000)
Over the years, the merits and strength of Alice in Chains as a live act have been argued ad infinitium, but the one thing that everyone can agree on is that the group sounded great in a live setting and were surprisingly consistent given Layne Staley's drug problems. Still, the point that fans balk and quibble over is the band's presence on stage. Gina Arnold called Layne Staley's stage presence “inert yet compelling” and, when the band opened briefly for KISS before going on hiatus, Gene Simmons complained, not that they sounded bad or conducted themselves poorly, that they simply didn't do anything up there. This is true; with Layne Staley at the wheel, Alice in Chains was aurally spectacular but visually uninteresting. While the singer just stood still at the mic, Cantrell, Inez and Kinney would concentrate on making the best sound possible – but not the best spectacle. A few stories about the band, which include a lot of movement (like when Cantrell spent an entire set sliding repeatedly on his knees, as chronicled in Grunge is Dead), usually happened to entertain the band itself – not so much their audience. That's likely why little in the way of live footage of the band has been made readily available other than the Unplugged set, but why Live is a reasonably handy document to hear; they might not have been much to look at, but Alice in Chains' live sound was phenomenal.
The reasonably straightforward compilation (straightforward in every way – from the title on down) of live tracks captured between 1990 and 1996, Live, illustrates just how good the band could sound onstage, but doesn't just stick to the monolithic hits which could have been harvested from Alice in Chains' songbook. Rather, it's actually a pretty good sampling of strengths; opening with “Bleed the Freak” (recorded at the Moore Theater in Seattle in 1990), listeners will be struck by the lean and dangerous interplay between Cantrell, Starr and Kinney as they careen almost recklessly through the changes, seeming to come near undone at the end of every verse before Staley flies in on the choruses and galvanizes the band. Immediately after that, “Queen of the Rodeo” bleats in for a bit of aggressive comic relief (Staley's “I'm not a queer, so go fuck a steer” line – done in Texas no less! – grinds the song to a halt, but will still get a few grins). This is, of course, a reasonably light and spry start for what has been widely regarded as one of the darker alt-rock bands in the canon, but this introduction is still effective for whetting appetites and getting the ears of listeners tweaked.
After that light introduction, the band begins to get its game face on. Every member of Alice in Chains' teeth are showing as “Man in the Box,” “Love, Hate, Love,” “Rooster” and “Would?” (all pulled from the band's show in Glasgow, 1993) begin layering dark clouds in the minds of listeners. Here, the band has really hit its stride as Mike Inez and Sean Kinney stampede along while Cantrell's guitar (which is thick enough to be mistaken for a high-register bass) layers deceptively simple guitar lines and textures to hold listeners hypnotized. Those heavy implements would be enough to guarantee that they'll stick in the minds of listeners, but then there's Staley – who rasps incendiary, death-defying and harrowing vocals on top to remove all doubt. Here, the singer's vocals are jaw-dropping in their intensity and focus, and make the possibility that people left those shows very changed people; it doesn't feel like a religious experience exactly, but certainly a life-changing one – even just listening to the CD.
The “specialness” of the songs culled from 1993 put the diminished return of those caught in 1996 that close this record into startling relief. Not that the cuts of “Them Bones,” “God Am” and “Dam that River” are poor, just that there's a certain detachment in them that's unmissable and more than a little disconcerting. There's a certain papery quality in Staley's vocal that's difficult to hear, but even more difficult to say how the band could possibly have compensated for it; the singer is there, but there's no way to argue that he isn't suffering. As the album limps to a close, while there's plainly enough to make for rewarding repeat listens, it gets increasingly difficult to make it through the late playing of the record – if only because fans know what's coming next: even in '96, Staley was beginning to flounder a bit as his vices began to consume him.
Alice in Chains
(Columbia/Sony Music, 2001)
In an age when “greatest hits” or “best of” compilations are characterized by and revered for the frills included which never actually appeared on any other release, Alice in Chains' Greatest Hits disc has the disquieting distinction of being precisely what its name implies; a solid gold and instantly memorable collection of the biggest singles that the band ever released.
Greatest Hits gets the ball rolling in precisely all the right ways as it opens with “Man in the Box” and never looks back. The guitars spit gobs in the eyes of unseen tormentors as Layne Staley chastises them and screams in their ears and Sean Kinney and Mike Starr deliver a series of body blows, which can still listeners in the right frame of mind. Here, “Man in the Box” (rightly the first calling-card single which introduces Alice in Chains) opens the proceedings but, unlike many other “timeless” new rock songs which everyone thought would hang on forever, “Man in the Box” remains able to command attention from those first stunted notes issued by guitarist Jerry Cantrell, no matter how many years later. From there, Greatest Hits crashes through hit after hit in chronological order with no pauses, no gaffes, no frills and no bullshit – just relying on the lynchpin songs in order to present the strongest, most plainly popular face of Alice in Chains possible. At least the first time through, it's kind of nice and/or relieving to be able to just listen to the album without having to worry about the necessity of skipping a song here or there; these are the tracks which everyone can agree on.
That said though (and really to play devil's advocate), one has to wonder who this compilation was made for. When it was released in 2001, Alice in Chains had only gone for about six years without a new studio album, and fans had been kept interested with live albums, box sets and myriad other releases, so why put out something so plainly utilitarian? The answer may never exactly be explained but, in retrospect, it's ironic that Greatest Hits would be the last AIC release that Layne Staley would see; just nine months after this release, Staley's body would be found in his Seattle condominium and the first incarnation of Alice in Chains would be finished. Many grieved, many thought it was all over – but it would only be the end of Alice in Chains' first evolution.
Alice in Chains
The Essential Alice in Chains (2CD)
(Columbia/Sony Music/Legacy, 2006)
There may be no definitive reason why some things happen, they just do – and the existence of The Essential Alice in Chains is a perfect example of that. By 2006, many (rightly assumed that the story had been told and all the post-scripts issued; between Music Bank, Nothing Safe and Greatest Hits, even passing fans had a fair amount of material to get a perfectly superficial feel for Alice in Chains. So why issue Essential? Well, by 2006, Alice in Chains' music had been around long enough to start influencing others pretty clearly and, with the previous comps leaving a variety of things to be desired in their respective run-times, Essential seemed to just make good sense.
While Nirvana may be widely considered to be the most celebrated grunge band, one listen to modern rock radio today reveals that the most musically influential band to surface in the late Eighties and early Nineties has been Alice in Chains. In their prime, the band’s balance of pain and pleasure – beauty and unsightly need – spoke to an entire generation of dispossessed metal heads and every drop of sweat that fell to the stage during an Alice in Chains show spawned another follower: the troubling sea of “Rain When I Die” begat Tool; “God Smack” is self-explanatory; the stunted ending of “Would?” has been remade by System of a Down a dozen times over; Disturbed couldn’t exist without “Again”; and the list goes on. Yet, for all their influence, AIC has proven inimitable – but The Essential Alice in Chains does provide the dots that, when connected, display the picture of modern heavy rock and, with a couple of greatest hits sets and a box set available, one could easily assume that TEAIC is simply a shameless cash grab – but the album is surprisingly more complete than any others of its type. In two disks, the set does an excellent job of summing up AIC’s catalogue by culling the classic tracks from the totality of the band’s output with a critic’s eye for what’s key in the evolution of the band. For that reason, the Sap EP is included in its entirety with special attention paid as well to Dirt (nine tracks in all) along with a fair amount of Jar of Flies material. No stone is left unturned, however, in search of a complete document (both “What the Hell Have I” and “A Little Bitter” get exhumed from the Last Action Hero soundtrack as well as “Get Born Again” and “Died” being pirated from Music Bank) and the set benefits greatly from such meticulous care – from the beginning shock of “We Die Young” through “Got Me Wrong,” “Right Turn,” “Angry Chair” and “Grind,” one can hear the evolution of Alice in Chains from glossy but dystopian metal band to genuinely tortured and emotive artists of music without having to wade through a bloated box set or having to program a multi-disc player with all of the band’s albums. There is truth in advertising in the name Essential Alice in Chains; every track on the set is a classic, important benchmark in the evolution of modern rock.
Alice in Chains
Black Gives Way To Blue
How does one pick up the pieces and try to put them back together after tragedy strikes? Such is the question every band has to ask itself when they find themselves short a member but, particularly when that band loses its voice, it can be a devastating blow because it instantly throws any future that the band members left behind might have into question because it's impossible not to notice the difference in any future recordings they might make. It's even more noticeable (and makes the band's future even more questionable) in a case like that of Alice in Chains because that voice as genuinely one-of-a-kind and at the center of the band's identity; when singer Layne Staley died in 2002, the loss left a mammoth void in the fabric of any possible work that the band might release because, while co-singer/guitarist Jerry Cantrell was the rock brains and balls of the songwriting duo, Staley was the tormented heart as well as the main well of empathy and the emotional lynch-pin of Alice in Chains. Because of that, the overwhelming sense among fans upon hearing about the singer's death was (unlike the disgusting behavior that surrounded Kurt Cobain's suicide) one of pathos; the singer's passing was called the most methodical, prolonged and painful suicide on record, but most just felt a wrench in the pit of their stomachs at the news and their hearts immediately went out to the survivors. Even the music media – notorious for enjoying the rape of a good corpse – treated Staley's death with a delicacy and tenderness almost never before not often (if ever) seen. ...And so, for seven years, Alice in Chains called it quits (at least from recording) and everyone understood – who would expect them to continue? Who could? There was the hope, but no one was pushing them – if AIC came back, they'd have to do it in their own time. Were the surviving bandmembers aware of this? Damn straight they were – Cantrell explains where he, drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Inez are sitting right now most bluntly at the opening of “All Secrets Known” – the lead-off track from Black Gives Way To Blue, Alice in Chains first album of new material in fifteen years when he sings:
A new beginning
Time to start living
Like just before we died
There's no going back
To the place we
Like just before we died.
There's no going back
to the place
we started from
Falling through fingers
Trust in the feeling.”
With those words, the meaning of the title 'Black Gives Way To Blue' snaps into focus. The pall cast by Layne Staley's death hasn't lifted from the minds of the band members, but the healing has begun on this record and the injury to the group once perceived to be mortal has faded to resigned acceptance, a discovery of the will to carry on and a day-glow bruise. That does not mean, however, that Alice in Chains isn't haunted by Layne Staley's ghost – in fact, it would be difficult to read into the lyrics of any one of the eleven tracks on Black Gives Way To Blue and not find his apparition lurking in eleven darkened corners. The ghost is the muse on BGWTB; with Cantrell solely manning most of the songwriting duties, the torment of addiction and the maddening isolation of it that once characterized Alice in Chains' songbook (or at least that portion belonging to Staley) has been replaced as Cantrell turns the focus of songs including “Last of My Kind,” “Your Decision,” “Lesson Learned” and “Private Hell” inward; the perspective shifts to Staley, his obvious absence and the ramifications thereof with a different sort of gut-wrenching result that still hits listeners, but in a different, more universally relatable place than those songs on previous albums did. To put more flesh on that connective tissue, great care seems to have been taken by Cantrell & co. to draw a hard line connecting the AIC of old with that of Black Gives Way To Blue. “Your Decision,” for example, uses a very similar chord progression to “Brother” while “A Looking in View” could easily fit into a mixtape that leans heavily on material from Dirt and “When the Sun Rose Again” hits vibes that Alice in Chains has avoided since they recorded “Am I Inside.” In each case, the band does seem to try and adhere as closely as possible to the sounds – or extensions of them – that they first developed in their glory days with only the slightest amount of noticeable growth registered here. That's not necessarily a bad thing however as, after fifteen years, if the band appeared all-new and all-different, whatever they did would also be all-abhorrent.
...And, on that line of thought, the man tapped to fill Layne Staley's shoes should draw mention. William DuVall had his work cut out for him walking in as the Johnny-come-lately on a legacy and, to his credit, he does an admirable job; even if he is still trying to find his legs and producer Nick Raskulinecz seems to have gone out of his way to keep the bright lights off the new blood. Most of the dynamic vocal turns registered on Black Gives Way To Blue are Cantrell's (some of the best are “Lesson Learned,” “Acid Bubble,” “All Secrets Known”), but DuVall does get a few choice licks in on “Check My Brain,” “Last of My Kind” and “A Looking in View.” Those songs where he does take the helm are perfectly respectable starting points for an untested singer, and they do leave the possibility that some fantastic turns are possible in the future.
That said, and speaking as a fan, Black Gives Way To Blue seems destined to be met with mixed feelings. On one hand, the album's very existence is bittersweet but, on the other, it is a decent offering that handily kicks the rust of the band's belts and doesn't try to act like the past never happened. The material is decent – even if certainly not Alice in Chains' best – and an able successor to (but not a replacement for – not yet) to the band's legacy, but it is step one. Time will tell if they're able to re-scale the mountain, but that Black Gives Way To Blue exists illustrates that Alice in Chains is has come forth, renewed as a new entity.
Alice In Chains
The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here
When does a band finally get to stand outside the shadow of its own past? That is the first question those who listen to The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here will ask themselves in frustration, because Alice In Chains appears right back where they were when Black Gives Way To Blue came out in most listeners' mind's eye; facing a wall of dubious expectation. Listeners will find themselves asking if singer William DuVall can stand up to Layne Staley's legacy (just as they asked four years ago) and if Cantrell, Kinney and Inez still have the chops to make AIC crunch as hard as they did before.Those are questions that the band already answered, but fans won't be able to stop themselves from asking again; and the problem with that is the band has already moved on – has already set the primer for DuVall as Staley's successor (on Black Gives Way To Blue) – and are in a very different place now from where a lot of listeners expect them to be on this record. They are not paying tribute to Layne Staley again as they did on Black Gives Way To Blue; The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is a fresh start and should be judged as such.
AIC's fresh start begins pretty strongly with “Hollow” and swaggers to life in a surprisingly distinguished manner. There, Jerry Cantrell's thick guitar tone appears like a dense and imposing wall of sound, contrary to the reasonably sick and uneasy manner with which the back used to support Layne Staley, and the “slick-over-sick” vibe combined easily with DuVall's muscular vocal delivery. The result is a heavy, metallic attack; certainly more “metal” than “alt-” or “grunge,” but not off-puttingly so. That proves to be the focus the album takes, overall.
The metal edge of The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is at its sharpest in songs like “Pretty Done,” “Lab Monkey,” “Breath On A Window” and “Phantom Limb” certainly, and those tracks definitely take the lion's share of the attention that The Devil... generates – but it is worth pointing out that Alice In Chains does not abandon all the other forms they “used to use.” There are a couple of Jar Of Flies-esque acoustic numbers in this run-time (see “Voices” and “Scalpel”), for example, and there are a few songs (like “Stone,” “Low Ceiling” and the album's title track) which throttle back a bit and lock into a rhythm and sound comparable to some of the smoother, more metallic cuts on Facelift – but it's plainly evident that the band is more interested in focusing on metal here. They're right to do so too, because every time they venture away from that sound, Alice In Chains loses a long of the personality about their sound; it might sound quarrelsome to contend, but the closer to alt-rock this permutation of Alice In Chains gets now, the more anonymous they seem.
“So is The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here any good?” Well, it's not bad, but it's not good by the conventions set when Alice In Chains first made their name twenty years ago; this album requires a redefinition of the parameters within which Alice In Chains work in order to get the most from it. The easiest way to look at it is to look at Black Gives Way To Blue as being the bridge between two tracks; the alt-rock track that the band was on before, and a great unknown. That “great unknown” is where The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here picks up, and there happens to be a lot more heavy metal in its makeup; while some old-guard fans will likely be permanently turned off of the band by this album, some fans will remain and the record may help to build a new and different fanbase too. In that way, there's no arguing that The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here isn't a difficult record – but that doesn't mean it isn't also an essential album to the band's development.
Alice In Chains - "Check My Brain" - Black Gives Way To Blue
Alice In Chains - "A Looking In View" - Black Gives Way To Blue
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