The Record Review

The Place For Honest Record Reviews

Looking In New: The Return of a Giant

aicnewAlice In Chains – Black Gives Way to Blue
September 29, 2009
EMI/Virgin Records

Victim of Loudness War? Yes

Usually when a well-established band attempts to replace a key member of its lineup, the results are less than thrilling. Only a handful of bands have successfully accomplished this move, mostly because they went with their artistic gut rather than their commercial desires and continued to produce music that was original and memorable (the names Van Halen, AC/DC and Wilco come immediately to mind as prime examples). Most bands that attempt to replace popular members, however, make the gigantic mistake of trying to find a substitute that is a dead ringer for the member being replaced (Journey, Judas Priest and the biggest disaster in this category, Blind Melon). This usually brings on the one-two punch of both turning off all but the most diehard fans and leaving their music sounding stale. After all, the new member wasn’t hired for their originality, but simply because they could mimic the guy with the originality.

In an unprecedented case, Alice In Chains have managed to accomplish both of the aforementioned approaches with the addition of William DuVall to their ranks. Stepping in after the 2002 death of original singer Layne Staley, DuVall is able to bring his own voice to the proceedings while still echoing enough of Staley’s trademark contributions to keep things sounding familiar. The material included on their first release in fourteen years, Black Gives Way to Blue, treads a lot of familiar paths for the band, but very rarely comes off sounding forced or contrived. Instead, it sounds like the next logical entry in a catalog that has been consistently stellar and satisfying.

The credit for this somewhat miraculous achievement may be more suitably attributed to guitarist/vocalist Jerry Cantrell more so than newcomer DuVall. After all, Cantrell was (and still remains) Alice In Chains’ primary songwriter, penning many of the band’s most notable songs and memorable lyrics (“Rooster,” “No Excuses” and “Would?” come immediately to mind). Therefore, the themes and sounds included on Black Gives Way to Blue aren’t those of a band struggling to recreate the style of a missing member, but rather the continuation of a long-running story. DuVall’s narratives sound like Staley’s because they are written by the same author, the inspiringly prolific Cantrell. Add to this the fact that Cantrell also shared a healthy percentage of the vocal work on all previous Alice In Chains albums and its hard to imagine how the band wouldn’t succeed in spite of the time passed and significant change endured.

This is not to say that Layne Staley is not missed. Staley provided a vocal quality to Alice In Chains that was a vulnerably haunting as it was undeniably powerful and those qualities are sorely  missed on the band’s latest material. Staley was a man that was riddled by drug addiction and tormented by personal demons, elements that consistently presented themselves in both his performance and songwriting. It unconsciously because a part of the Alice In Chains sound, one that assisted in defining an entire genre of music in the early to mid-1990’s. Now, while William DuVall certainly is a powerful lead singer, his delivery lacks the despair of his predecessor and, thus, leaves a key element of the band’s prior sound out of the mix.

Even with the absence of the talented Staley, however, it would be hard to deny the high quality of the songs included on Black. Album opener “All Secrets Known” starts things off nicely and segues nicely into the surprisingly catchy “Check My Brain.” Both songs are laden with trademark Cantrell riffs and will undoubtedly be in-concert favorites. “Your Decision” and “When the Sun Rose Again” favor the acoustic-based end of Alice In Chains, arguably the element they have always been most adept at. Both tracks wallow in the detuned, flat-chord chugging that tracks like “Got Me Wrong” and “Brother” did with marvelous results years prior. The band then opts to finish things off with what is seemingly a double tribute to the departed Staley, the churning “Private Hell” and the subdued title track (which features a piano contribution from the legendary Elton John). It’s nice to see the band acknowledging their lost friend rather than simply forging ahead and the songs are perhaps the most emotive of the entire set because of their subject matter.

All said and done, Alice In Chains have a very good album on their hands with Black Gives Way to Blue. While not in the same league as their earlier classics Dirt or Jar of Flies, the album is certainly well-worth the wait and in no way a contrived disappointment or quick cash-in on a popular name. It’s admirable that Cantrell and Co. opted to go their own way for a decade before reconvening the band and then took another four years on the road to get things in check. It makes Black feel that much more genuine and legitimate than if they had rushed something out immediately after Staley untimely death. If Alice In Chains is indeed back, Black is definitely an encouraging example of what the band still has left in them musically.

– Ian Rice

To purchase a copy of Black Gives Way to Blue, please click here.

October 2, 2009 - Posted by | classic rock, Grunge, Guitar, Guitars, Rock, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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