11
Nov
09

Album review: Alice in Chains – ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’

Alice In Chains are the most under-rated grunge band to have ever played and that is a fact.

 

 

There were a lot of grunge bands playing back in the 90s that cottoned on to what bands like Nirvana were doing and jumped right in there (yes Bush and Silverchair, I’m looking at you) and hence were labelled as ‘grunge’.

But I’ll tell you right now, that wasn’t grunge. Even what Nirvana’s music, though it had heavy, dirty grunge undertones, was infused with a generous helping of punk.

Alice In Chains were 100% grunge, pure as the driven sludge. They were hard, heavy and dark, but also capable of writing exceptional acoustic ballads and more up-tempo songs like ‘No Excuses’ and ‘Over Now’ that rocked without sounding cheesy and lame.

I can understand fully why they weren’t everyone’s weapon of choice, and I’m glad of that because it makes the relationship I have with their music all the more personal,  but that doesn’t change the fact that they were an extremely talented band and I believe anyone with a critical musical ear would agree.

Alice In Chains was formed in the late 80s by vocalist Layne Staley and lead guitarist Jerry Cantrell. Sean Kinney joined the band shortly thereafter on drums, but it wasn’t until bassist Mike Inez (who played with Ozzy Osbourne until early 90s) joined that Alice In Chains truly came into being.

What was so unique about this band was the unholy unity of Staley and Cantrell. Most people familiar with the band don’t realise it, but Staley and Cantrell sang a lot of AiC’s songs together, their vocals harmonising with one another so perfectly that you would be forgiven for thinking their two voices were one.

In total the band released three studio albums and three EPs but sadly became inactive after 1995 due to Staley’s excessive drug use and inability to commit to touring or even recording with the band. By the late 90’s Alice In Chains were all but forgotten, a fact that was cemented by Staley’s death due to an overdose of heroine and cocaine in 2002.

 

 

By the time the drugs he was using finally killed him not even his family and close friends were in contact with him anymore. He lay dead in his apartment for two weeks before anyone came looking for him and I’ve included this for the simple fact that a lot of rock stars like to pretend they are tortured souls, but Layne was the real deal and the music he made with AiC was a testament to that fact.

And so, as you can imagine, I was excited as a kid at Christmas when that I learned earlier this year that the band had reformed. Even more exciting was the news that the line-up was identical except for vocalist William DuVall who joined the band officially in 2007 and sings on the new album Black Gives Way To Blue, the first AiC studio album to be recorded in nearly 15 years.

I’ll be honest, the first thought that struck me was that this album would be an epic fail. Layne was the core of the band, anything without him would be a sad and sorry reflection of what this band used to be capable of, right?

 

 

Well, about 5 seconds into their first single off Black Gives Way To Blue, ‘Check My Brain’, my fears were put to rest, and 30 seconds after that, when DuVall and Cantrell step in to croon out the opening lines in perfect unison I recoiled from my laptop so violently that I pulled the ear plugs out the headphone jack.

It’s uncanny. It’s like seeing someone who died 14 years ago buying milk at the local 7/11. It’s fucking Alice In Chains man! It’s fucking Alice In Chains!

I got my hands on the full album a month later and immediately started putting it under intense scrutiny.

 

 

‘All Secrets Known’ the opening track starts slow and lumbering, like some massive, long dead thing rising again and it’s almost instantly recognisable that while this band hasn’t changed, it sure as hell hasn’t stayed the same.

Track 2 is ‘Check My Brain’ and starts with a monster, string-bending riff that Alice in Chains and only Alice In Chains could ever get right. The chorous sneaks up on you, but hits hard and sticks and is unmistakeably the new AiC at it’s best.

‘Last Of My Kind’ starts sounding a little similar to tracks 1 & 2, except for the awesome palm-muted chorous that drops like an executioner’s axe and ups the tempo right when it’s needed most.

However, the track that really shines is the haunting acoustic masterpiece ‘Your decision’ (track 4). Cantrell’s steel stringed tone is immaculate in this song and DuVall’s sings a lot of the song solo, which is really the first time you realise it’s not actually Layne singing.

It’s interesting – DuVall is nowhere near as tortured as Staley was and in some respects it’s a welcome relief, it’s almost like listening to how Staley might have sounded had he bested his demons instead of walking the dark and lonely road he ended up on.

‘Your Decision’ is the kind of acoustic ballad so many other bands fuck up completely. AiC walks the line between heartfelt and sentimental without being whiney and irritating, a welcome change from the purile Nickleback-ish ballads most post-grunge bands write.

 

 

Sadly after that the album starts to suffer from tracks that smack of repetition with the exception of the second acoustic track ‘When The Sun Rose Again’ and the awesome, powerful, driving riff around which ‘Lesson Learned’ is built.

The back end of the album does start to take some shape after a few listens, but generally fails to impress in comparison to the opening four tracks.

Once I’d heard Black Gives Way To Blue a good couple of times, I slipped AiC’s previous eponymous album into my car’s frontloader, turned the volume up and immediately started noticing the differences between the band that was and the band that is.

Although DuVall does a more than adequate job of filling in for Staley, Layne had a far deeper, edgier tone. His quavering, drawling vocals are hypnotic, they can carry and colour an otherwise dreary song, something that DuVall struggles to do on Black Gives Way To Blue’s weaker tracks.

Tracks like ‘Acid Bubble’ and ‘A Looking In View’ just don’t work and sound distinctly like filler to me, which I don’t have a problem with, every album has a certain amount of filler, but in this case the tracks are both roughly 7 minutes long which is the musical equivalent of watching paint dry.

 

 

The lyrical content is still solid though, which I’d wager is because Cantrell had a strong influence in writing it, as he always did, and lines like “You feed the fire that burned us all / When you lied / To feel the pain that spurs you on / Black inside” (from ‘Your Decision’) are vintage AiC.

In closing it must be said that writing this review was no easy task considering the history I have with this band, which is something that most people listening 14 years on probably don’t share, so I’ll put this as simply as I can.

If you’ve never really gotten into Alice In Chains, Black Gives Way To Blue is a great place to start and because no one else out there is playing music like this anymore, it has a very distinctive and different flavour that, if nothing else, should make for some compelling listening.

However, if you know this band, after the sixth or seventh listen to the album you’ll concede that there’s hardly a track on the album that can hold a flame to the raw, powerful AiC classics such as ‘Rooster’, ‘Would’, ‘Them Bones’, ‘Angry Chair’ or ‘Heaven Beside You.’

Provided your hopes aren’t set as high as mine were, you’ll enjoy this album, the band has stayed true to their sound and can still rock out with the best of them and for that I am more than happy to give credit where it is due.

Final Verdict: 8/10

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2 Responses to “Album review: Alice in Chains – ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’”


  1. 1 Lopes
    January 12, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    As one of the biggest AiC fans on the planet, I must say when I heard they were releasing this I had to ask myself, ‘why are they doing this?’ The signature of the band was the unique, unreplicated voice of Staley being harmonised by Cantrell’s, which was weaker yet balanced everything. All that over Cantrell’s gut churning riffs and style. Maybe it’s because I’m too much of a die-hard fan, but it just isn’t AiC. It reminded me too much of Cantrell’s solo efforts, especially Degradation Trip (which I love, don’t get me wrong, but it ain’t AiC). It lacks Layne’s wails and Cantrell seems to be allowed to wander too much into his country/western roots and gets dark in what I can only describe as an emo way, rather than by giving you that feeling of emotional unrest, like just after you get kicked in the balls, like those old tracks used to. Make any sense?

    Anyway, great review dude, I must say I tend to agree with your assessment as a whole! I’m loving all your posts, keep ’em coming!

    See ya

    • January 12, 2010 at 4:08 pm

      I hear ya man!

      It’s weird, I was actually listening to Dirt the other day, reliving classic tracks like ‘Sickman’, ‘Dam That River’ and ‘God Smack’ and it really hit home that any attempt to emulate AiC is doomed to failure without Staley. That fucking guy was the real deal, his lyrics were powerful and profound, his vocals were raw and haunting because they were sung by a heroine addict that knew full well he was killing himself every time he stuck that needle in his arm, but was totally powerless to stop it.

      Staley didn’t give a fuck. He had more raw talent in his small toe than most vocalists these days have in their entire bodies and if he’d just sought help for his addiction, he could still be around today, making great albums, writing killer music, but he didn’t give a fuck and in a way I’m glad he didn’t because it wouldn’t have been AiC if he did.

      Since writing this review, I don’t think I’ve listened to Black Gives Way To Blue again and I’m not sure if I ever will. My initial excitement over AiC releasing an album has subsided and the initial glow has worn off to the point hwere I can see the album for what it really is, a made in Japan version of one of the best grunge bands to ever play.

      Thanks for the comment Alex! Glad you dig the blog, stop by anytime and if you know of any new albums I should give a listen to, let me know, I’m always looking for suggestions when it comes to album reviews.

      -ST


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