Black Gives Way to Blue

Initially when I heard about this album my thoughts were negative, as I felt that the Alice In Chains moniker should’ve died with Layne. Let’s face it, if Cantrell’s solo career had taken off this reunion likely would’ve never happened, but then I got to thinking that Alice In Chains were primarily his band (essential though Layne was to their overall sound), and it’s not their fault that Layne died on them. What’s shocking to me is how good this album is; though it doesn’t scale the mindbogglingly great heights of Dirt or Jar Of Flies (both of which this album recalls at times), this is another really good album that’s comparable to the rest of their back catalog.

Somewhat controversially, rather than continue as a three piece the band replaced Staley with one William DuVall, who shares lead vocals with Jerry and who also plays guitar and happens to be black, thereby increasing the surprise factor (but not in a bad way). And while he’s no Layne Staley (one of the best vocalists ever), he’s plenty good enough and their harmonies are still uniquely haunting (in fact when DuVall sings harmony at times he does sound eerily like Layne), while the band’s overall sound is still wonderfully atmospheric and heavy as hell. Although Layne is not around anymore, his ghost haunts this entire record; whereas earlier albums were the narrative to Layne’s drug-fueled self-destruction, this album can be seen as what happens after that self-destruction takes his life and how it affects those around him. In a way it’s both an epilogue and a fresh new beginning, albeit one that was 14 years in the making. This is made clear on the leadoff track, “All Secrets Known,” a fitting album opener with great creeping riffs, those harmonies which still rule, and lyrics about this being a new beginning because “there’s no going back.” After that comes the smash single “Check Your Brain,” whose mind melting, disorienting riff is an absolute killer, plus its dual harmomized vocals and catchy chorus also mark it as classic AIC. “Last Of My Kind” deals with the band’s current state as the only grunge band from their era, besides Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, to still be standing.

Maybe it’s a bit generic and overly reminiscent of “Damn That River,” but more good twisting riffs and a deliciously dark aura more than compensates. The next song, “Your Decision,” is the emotional centerpiece of the album. Musically recalling “Nutshell,” lyrically this song is obviously about Layne’s drug addiction and death. Filled with sadness, pain, regret, and even a sense of betrayal, the song also features more affecting harmonies and some soulful, searing guitar work from Cantrell, whose playing is in fine form throughout. Rather than get into a track-by-track analysis, I’ll note the rest of the songs that I consider highlights. “When The Sun Rose” is more acoustic and somewhat exotic due to its creative percussive flourishes, with more nice guitar work, while “Lesson Learned” flat out rocks and has a good chorus. “Private Hell” is mellower and has more haunting harmonies, but it also has massively powerful surges at times and is lyrically affecting, while the title track ballad, featuring Elton John on piano, again directly addresses Layne’s death, but this time it’s a soothing and kind remembrance, which fittingly ends the album on a hopeful note.

As for the rest of the songs, “A Looking In View,” “Acid Bubble,” and “Take Her Out” aren’t bad either, they’re just less impressive than the rest and bring the album down a bit on the whole, as it seems a bit samey sounding at times over its hour plus duration. Then again, releasing a shorter album would’ve seemed cheap after such a long absence, and the album holds up well as an entire entity and gets better with repeated plays. They may have spawned a lot of inferior imitators, but with or without Layne few can replicate the emotional resonance and impact that this band achieves when they’re on their A game, which happens far more often than I expected.

Indeed, with this album Alice somehow managed to make a heavy rock album that appeals to rock radio without selling out, that’s true to their past without being a retread, and which pays the proper respects to Layne while proving that there’s a future for this band after all. In a way it’s their Temple Of The Dog tribute to Layne and it finally closes that last chapter in satisfying fashion. Whether future albums by this new incarnation of the band will measure up remains to be seen, but if not that won’t take away from the fact that this album has earned its place in the band’s legacy, and unlike the lead up to this album I won’t be negative about the next Alice In Chains album. In fact, I’m looking forward to it.

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