Review: Alice In Chains, “Black Gives Way To Blue”

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Alice In Chains frontman Layne Staley was a one-of-a-kind vocalist and his death in 2003 was a tragedy to the legions of fans who adored Staley’s dark, caustic and often heart-wrenching work. The man was a master at wringing rage and pain out of the words he sang, but there was a skewed beauty under the bitterness. He’s missed.

But time goes on and, after a lengthy rest, so did Alice In Chains. Now, six years after Staley’s death, we have “Black Gives Way To Blue,” the bands first album since 1995. In Staley’s absence, guitarist/songwriter Jerry Cantrell (who was always a big part of the band’s trademark harmonies), has become a co-lead singer of sorts, sharing vocal duties with new singer/guitarist William DuVall.

A lot of hardcore AIC fans hated the thought of the band going on in any form without Staley. I guess that’s understandable. I sympathize with fans who don’t want “their” band to continue in a new, changed form … but I don’t agree. What’s important to remember is it is not for fans to say what’s best for AIC. That choice falls to Cantrell, Sean Kinney and Mike Inez (and, I guess, also to DuVall).

With the controversy out of the way, we can now examine the merits of “Black Gives Way To Blue.”

First, it’s important to approach “Black Gives Way To Blue” without a huge number of preconceived notions. Time has passed and Cantrell and company aren’t the same men they were 13 or 17 years ago. The demons that plagued the band (drug addiction, the beast that drove “Dirt”) have been exorcised. Much of the debilitating misery and self-hate that made “Dirt” so cathartic in 1993 – and so painful to listen to now, considering Staley’s death – are gone. There’s a different vibe here, a feeling of optimism and renewal, even if it’s still tinged with sadness.

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“All Secrets Known” sets the new tone from the first minute. “Hope/A new beginning/Time/Time to start living/Like just before we died,” Cantrell sings. Cantrell and DuVall combine their voices in a way that is strikingly similar to the AIC of old, without becoming a copycat of the Staley/Cantrell trademark style. The melody moves unhurriedly, with layers under the main riff and a big major-chord bridge just before Cantrell’s brief solo.

Critics might complain that the riffs sound too much like older AIC songs. But it’s more accurate to say that Jerry Cantrell still sounds like himself. Cantrell’s riffs and playing are distinct and he hasn’t lost that. Anyone complaining that Cantrell should have reinvented his guitar style after Staley’s death is being unreasonable.

“Check My Brain” is positively happy and – dare I say it? – peppy. Cantrell’s whammy-bar opening riff is ear-catching and the chorus and bridge are upbeat and powerful. As with “All Secrets Known,” Cantrell and DuVall co-sing, although Cantrell’s voice is played up in the mix.

“Last Of My Kind” which DuVall co-wrote, is DuVall’s first chance to take the lead. Thankfully, he sounds almost nothing like Staley. DuVall has a deeper voice, a baritone compared to Staley’s growly whine. DuVall doesn’t try to be an imitation – which is smart, because he holds his own here. “Last Of My Kind” is angrier and more defiant than what came before, with a heavy riff and a chugging ending that reminds me of, believe it or not, Metallica’s “The Thing That Should Not Be.”

“Your Decision” is a lovely acoustic song – good, with strong vocal melodies, but not truly impressive until the bridge. It’s a song reminiscent of “Sap,” the band’s unexpected first acoustic EP.  

“A Looking In View” resurrects some of the bile of “Dirt” and “Facelift” without falling into the bottomless pit of despair. It’s a dark, gritty song, with a downtuned riff and a snarling co-vocal by DuVall and Cantrell. Kinney also shines here, pounding out the rhythm as if he’s attempting to smash his kit.

“When The Sun Rose Again” is acoustic again – stripped down and barren. It’s pretty, but also fairly forgettable.

“Acid Bubble” recalls “Down In A Hole” at first, with a creeping riff that dares to be slow. Duvall gets a few moments of solo vocals here, and he impresses again. The bridge, however, with its tempo change and repeated, barked chorus, is jarring and disjointed and doesn’t quite work with the rest of the song. However, the other pieces, especially the vocal performances, make “Acid Bubble” strong.

“Lesson Learned” is optimistic again, with strong lead vocals from Cantrell and a large major chord chorus.

“Take Her Out” reads like a justification (although none was needed) for the band going on as Alice In Chains. “She’s not just mine,” Cantrell and DuVall sing. But, as the song makes clean, she (Alice) does not exclusively belong to the die-hard fans, either. It’s a lovely song, with subdued yet strong Cantrell solo. It’s the sound of a band with a future.

“Private Hell” is despairing, with its slow riff and intricate, winding guitar work. Cantrell is not a shredder: The notes of his solo are deliberate and thought-out here. It’s all terribly sad, yet it’s also the strongest track – which is quite a feat, considering everything that has come before.

“Black Gives Way To Blue” is a direct ode to Staley and, not surprisingly, it’s heat-broken. A lot has been made of Elton John’s piano contribution here – but there are no “look at me” piano theatrics from Sir Elton that take the focus away from the vocals. I don’t know why the band chose John for the piano (was he friends with Staley? I don’t know), but the man does a wonderful job with his understated performance. The song is a beauty – and as a tribute to Staley from his friends, it’s both painful and gorgeous.

I’m going to utter a blasphemy now: I hope, when Cantrell, DuVall, Kinney and Inez regroup to record the next AIC album, they won’t be quite as haunted as they were on “Black Gives Way To Blue.” I’m glad they expressed their feelings about Staley’s death in such an honest, compelling way … but I’m looking forward to hearing what else they’ll have to say in the future.

You can hear tracks from the album on the band’s MySpace page here.

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2 Comments

  1. The title, and the replacement of lead singers, bears some resemblance to AC/DC’s “Back in Black” Thanks for the link to the tracks.

  2. “A Looking in View” and “Your Decision” are my favorite tracks on this album and I really like how fresh they sound. Really looking forward to their next release, whenever it will be out. Soon, I hope! 😀

    Regards,

    Junssi the Alice in Chains Discography Guy


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