posted on October 13, 2009 00:27
A few years back a buddy of mine told me Alice in Chains was touring again, and I was horrified. “How could this be?” I thought. I couldn’t deal with a number of my favorite songs from my formative years being bastardized by some Layne Staley-sounding imitator. When I recently heard that Alice in Chains had a new singer and were recording, I was not expecting to be on board. I knew that guitarist and primary songwriter Jerry Cantrell, bassist Mike Inez, and drummer Sean Kinney were still part of the band, which helped, and along with them was new singer William DuVall.
That “new singer” part frightened me, frankly. Alice in Chains’ new album, Black Gives Way to Blue, was released on September 29th. The first two singles from the album, “A Looking in View” and “Check My Brain,” were released early and offered promise-heavy music, heavy lyrics – so I developed a cautious optimism. They had that old familiar Alice in Chains grind, if you will. And they quickly reminded me how important Cantrell’s voice was to the band’s sound when Staley was still alive.
Honestly, the first time I listened to Black Gives Way to Blue, I tried really hard to find parts to dislike. Now, the more I hear it, the more I like it.
The best way to approach this record is to realize that this is not the same band from 15 years ago. That band died with Staley in 2002, if not earlier. But DuVall is more than capable of fronting a top-notch rock/metal band, and his harmonies with Cantrell sound just fine. In fact, Cantrell is prominent enough on the vocals that, from time to time, I can almost hear Layne Staley or his spirit....or something. I have to say, however, that I don’t believe that DuVall is trying to sing like (or replace) Staley at all.
The opening track, “All Secrets Known,” is obviously a tribute to Staley and the mindset of the band going forward. With lyrics like, “Hope, A new beginning/Time, Time to start living,” and “Calm, All wounds are healing/Strong, Truth is worth saving,” it’s easy to see that the band wrestled with this new identity (and maybe still does). Staley’s presence weaves in and out of the record, in the aforementioned ways and in more subtle mentions of ghosts, endings, and new beginnings. DuVall establishes himself on “Check My Brain” and “Last of my Kind” and Cantrell brings out the acoustic Alice sound for “Your Decision” and “When the Sun Rose Again.” But the majority of the album is the heavily overdriven guitar rock that fans of the previous albums will recognize instantly. Still, one of the true gems on the album is the title track, a ballad that features Cantrell on vocals and a guest appearance by Elton John on piano.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Black Gives Way to Blue is the way the electronic version bridges the distant past of music and the future of the electronic album. I downloaded the iTunes LP, my first purchase of this kind. This is a new packaging that features the usual mp3 files along with liner notes, artwork, lyrics, and even video footage from their recent tour of Australia and recording for the album (the latter includes narration by Cantrell). While in “play album” mode, a rotation of album artwork keeps the monitor busy while the music oozes out of the computer speakers. Aside from the quality of the music itself, the iTunes LP is a fantastic new toy that finally merges the audio with the visual in a way not really seen before.
Black Gives Way to Blue is a pretty good album. Many Alice in Chains fans will never accept it or DuVall as the singer. Believe me, I didn’t want to either. But taking a step back, I realized that this band has found a way to move on without ignoring what got them to where they are, and at the same time didn’t try to keep that old fire burning. This album is new and classic at the same time. It will never replace what they accomplished previously, but then again it’s really not supposed to.