Album name: Black Gives Way To Blue
Artist name: Alice in Chains
Released: September 29 2009
ZME Rating: 8/10
There are lots of ways to open a review of Alice in Chains’ long-awaited return to the studio. The obvious approach is to eulogise Layne Staley, their sorely-missed lead singer. But I have some deep-seated neuroses that don’t let me do things the obvious way. (They also don’t let me touch public bathroom door handles without covering my hand with my sleeve, or trust anyone who doesn’t remember Aqua’s “Doctor Jones” with a fond, nostalgic sigh. But anyway.) Nonetheless, Staley’s absence hangs heavy over Black Gives Way To Blue, like a collapsed, rainsoaked tent atop unwitting campers – the lack of Staley’s unique, pained vocals defines and informs this album as much as new singer William Duvall’s presence.
So it’s probably for the best that the band addresses the issue almost immediately. “All Secrets Known” opens the album with a frank and open divulging of where Jerry Cantrell and company stand on the Staley-less nature of the group: “Hope, a new beginning/Time, time to start living, like just before we died… There’s no going back to the place we started from.” And it’s somewhat telling that, atop a classic droning, metallic riff, it’s Cantrell’s voice taking lead – as much as Duvall has, over a few years of touring, become an accepted part of the fold, it’s Cantrell’s responsibility to show everyone that this is a natural, timely and well-deserved return for Alice.
That said, the harmonising that AiC were, and are, renowned for soon arrives; and if Duvall’s voice is never as singular and emotive as Layne’s, it certainly melds with Cantrell’s well enough, to the point where sometimes you might not be able to tell there’s been a change in the line-up. Whether this is a good or a bad thing probably depends on the listener – some will find the familiarity as comfortable as an old shoe, while others may find it creepy and weird, like an old shirt that smells like it’s been worn by an alcoholic impostor for the last few years. Do you see?
That said, even the fans who insist the the real Alice died with Staley should find some worth in this album. The deft craftsmanship and solid vocals that Cantrell brought on songs like “Heaven Beside You” and “Would?” is present and correct, making “Check My Brain” and “Your Decision” natural progressions for the band. And his talent for creating crushing, shape-shifting riffs that barely manage to stay on the alt-rock side of metal remains: “Acid Bubble” is among the densest, most hard-hitting songs AiC ever created.
But the real accomplishment for the new Alice is that they’ve effectively bridged the gap between hard rock and acoustic ruminations. Where, in the mid-90s, they seemed to work on a pattern of rock LP/acoustic EP, Black Gives Way To Blue features both aspects of the band, and is all the better for it. While most of the heavier songs are as hooky as prime AiC, they sometimes start to feel tired, and it’s a wonderful relief when the sludgy, one-note “A Looking In View” to give way to the nuanced, delicate, “Nutshell”-esque “When The Sun Rose Again”.
They seem to have saved the best for last however. The record closes with the one-two punch of “Private Hell” and “Black Gives Way To Blue”, which easily hang with some of the best songs AiC produced in their heyday. “Private Hell” feels like a sequel to “Down In A Hole”, Cantrell’s and Duvall’s voices beautifully mingling over a downbeat dirge. And when the chorus hits – “I amuse myself in my very own private hell” – it somehow feels triumphant, where “Down in a Hole” felt resigned. Not for nothing does the second verse contain the lyrics “I’ll move on [… ] Life is short”.
Immediately following that, the title track is a stately, unadorned thing; quietly plucked guitars, some subtle leads, and piano flourishes courtesy of Sir Elton John. As the most obvious tribute to Layne on the record, it’s well-judged and unaffected – its honesty and resolve keep it from being mawkish or melodramatic. Instead, it’s hard hitting, especially as the album closes with the simple, heartfelt line, “Lay down, I’ll remember you.”
And that about sums up what this album represents for Alice in Chains. The group was always about exorcising painful demons through music, and this album is no different. That it feels hopeful and strong by comparison to their earlier records probably stems from the fact that, in the wake of Staley’s death, things couldn’t really get any worse. Cantrell, Mike Inez and Sean Kinney aren’t stepping on Layne’s ghost so much as honouring it, and if you find, like me, that Duvall’s voice sometimes just makes you miss Layne’s howl, hey – it’s a wonderful excuse to revisit the rest of the band’s catalogue.
HEY, THERE: TRACKLISTING
1 – All Secrets Known
2 – Check My Brain
3 – Last Of My Kind
4 – Your Decision
5 – A Looking In View
6 – When The Sun Rose Again
7 – Acid Bubble
8 – Lesson Learned
9 – Take Her Out
10 – Private Hell
11 – Black Gives Way To Blue