Too much anticipation can just as easily bury a project as it can lift it above the endless parade of new releases. Just ask Axl Rose what anticipation did for Chinese Democracy, a record that lost its interest value the day it actually arrived on the shelves. Not so Alice in Chains who forsook G ‘N’ R’s veil of secrecy for an open policy that saw weekly web videos detailing the recording and the release of two songs (‘A looking in view’ and ‘check my brain’) before the album even hit the racks. The policy paid off, as both songs demonstrated that the nay-sayers, alarmed by the band returning sans Layne, were entirely wrong and actually should be grateful that this awesomely talented and yet stricken-by-tragedy band have returned at all.
Consider this: it has been ten long years since Alice in chains last released any new material (‘Died’ and ‘get born again’ both of which were featured on the 1999 box set ‘Music bank’) and longer, even, than that since they released an album. In the interim we’ve seen Jerry Cantrell release a second solo album (the excellent ‘Degradation trip’) and the band tentatively reform to do a world tour that met with huge success as well as understandable joy from AIC devotees who felt the loss of Layne keenly but were eager to see a band, destroyed in their prime, return to active duty. William Duvall, who has joined the band in Layne’s place but is eager not to be seen as a mere stand-in, proves himself here to be an excellent choice as he turns in a perfect, yet understated performance that is entirely in keeping with the level of respect with which the band as a whole have treated their friend’s untimely demise.
Opening with ‘All secrets known’ we are in familiar musical territory, with Jerry’s familiar sludge riffs underpinning stair-stepping notes and the much-missed vocal harmonies that were always the band’s trademark. Musically downbeat, the lyrics strike a more optimistic pose: “Hope, a new beginning. Time, time to start living” which reflects the band’s mindset just as the incomparably bleak lyrics to Dirt revealed the ugly truth behind the band back then. As an opener it shifts away from the sledgehammer approach of previous AIC albums (Dirt opened with the none-more-heavy ‘Them Bones’ while Alice in Chains opened with ‘Grind’) by beginning at a more stately, although equally metallic, pace. ‘Check my brain’, which most people will have checked out on the internet, flies along on a simple, yet effective riff and an insanely catchy chorus harmony that sticks in the mind long after the song has ended – a testament to the skill of the band who can write incredibly heavy music and yet infuse it with pop melodies that soar above the doom-laden guitars to great effect.
Where the first two songs are dominated by harmonised vocals, track three (‘last of my kind’) pushes William’s vocals to the forefront. Clearly a talented singer, he provides the band with a suitably powerful voice while never hinting that he’s attempting to copy Layne’s unique style opting instead to make his own mark on the band’s powerful anthems. Interestingly, elements of the song are actually reminiscent of Rob Zombie’s ‘Dragula’ – a mind boggling concept that actually works well. ‘Your decision’ is probably the closest song on the album to Jerry’s solo work, with an acoustic melody that recalls ‘Angel Eyes’ from Degradation trip and with Jerry taking lead vocal. Lyrically it’s a bleak song, seemingly dealing with Layne and the tragedy that befell him, but doing so in manner that is as sensitive as it is cathartic as well as the honesty that made Alice in chains so appealing the first time round.
‘A looking in view’ was the first taster of the album and became available a few months back. If you haven’t heard it already, it’s an astonishing song, possibly one of the heaviest ever recorded by AIC, and over the course of its seven minutes it twists and turns through a variety of Jerry’s very best riffs, while Sean Kinney pummels his drums into submission. At the time of its release it was a breathtaking track, showing that AIC were absolutely right to forge on in the face of the terrible adversity that has overshadowed them for the best part of a decade and familiarity has done nothing to dull its impact. ‘When the sun rose again’ is something of a departure, with unusual percussion backing a haunting tune that showcases the harmonies at their best and a pared-down acoustic approach last heard on ‘jar of flies’. ‘Acid bubble’ is slow but heavy – conjuring images of prime Heaven and Hell, but with vocals to die for along with unpredictable changes in tempo and controlled burst of aggression. ‘Lesson learned’ is faster, with a droning guitar lead over the intro leading to a weary vocal line “Just another lesson learned…” and a chorus that opens up to add dense layers of guitar and vocals.
‘Take her out’ is musically quite upbeat, with a bouncy rhythm counterpointing the minor-key vocal line. ‘Private hell’ is every bit as bleak as the title would suggest, but as is so often the case with Alice in chains, it’s not depressing so much as it is inspiring. Perhaps it’s the way the vocals come together in a way that very few bands can match, or perhaps it’s Jerry Cantrell’s increasingly fluid solos, but it’s a talent that continues to mark Alice In Chains out as quite apart from their Seattle peers. Final song ‘Black gives way to blue’ is short and emotive. Featuring Elton John on piano, it is a gentle, lilting number that Jerry wrote from Layne’s point of view in his final days. It is a beautiful paean to a lost friend and, critically, is not over-milked, but left as a subtle and fitting farewell to a gifted man.
There is no-one quite like Alice in chains. Apart they are all capable musicians (both of Jerry’s solo albums are testament to his prodigious talent), but together they are exceptional. This is a very different album to ‘Dirt’. In place of the drug addled horrors of that album, we have a record that is shot through with sadness at the loss the band have suffered coupled with hope of a future still to come for the survivors. That they have returned is cause to celebrate, but that they should do so on the back of an album that is so good is cause to break out the best Champagne and raise a glass indeed. With superb production, eleven tracks that rarely dip below the classic level and a renewed sense of purpose Alice in chains deserve to return to the vaunted place they once occupied at the head of the alternative rock pile. This is a superb album from a unique band.
Black Gives Way To Blue is out now through Parlophone