Alice in Chains v. 2.0: Well worth the wait

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Artist: Alice in Chains
Album: Black Gives Way to Blue
Hometown: Seattle, WA
Label: Capitol Records
Score: 7.75/11

“Hope. A new beginning. Time, time to start living, like just before we died. There’s no going back to the place we’ve started from.”

Using all the subtlety of a brick to the head, this is the way Alice In Chains opens “All Secrets Known,” the first track off “Black Gives Way To Blue,” its first new album in 13 years. It’s AIC, seven years removed from the death of beloved lead singer Layne Staley, drawing a line in the sand for the fans that have chastised them for continuing the band with new singer/guitarist William DuVall. Essentially, they’re saying they’re not about to forget their legacy with Layne, but they’re not about to hang it up, either. They still have something left in them.

Anybody that ever wore out their copies of “Dirt” or “Unplugged” should be rejoicing right about now, because while we’re not getting the same band that created those masterpieces, we’re getting an assurance that 3/4’s of the group responsible for those works of art is going to do its best to write the next chapter in the band’s legacy.

“Black Gives Way To Blue” is the next chapter and a welcome addition to Chains’ catalog, boasting the super-catchy and heavy single “Check My Brain,” bruising anthems like “Looking In View” and “Acid Bubble,” and more creepy-ass harmonies than you can shake a stick at. Jerry Cantrell and Co. still have it, and listening to the album makes you wonder why it took them so long to get back on the horse.

Now, don’t get me wrong. BGWTB isn’t perfect — not with “Your Decision” (aka “Nutshell-lite”) and “Take Her Out” (too much like the weak tracks off of “Facelift”) populating the track list. But even though it’s clear that the band can’t do all the same things it could with Layne, who was blessed with an extraordinary and inimitable voice, primary songwriter Cantrell does a good job of accentuating the positives and hiding the negatives.

To start, he shoulders most of the lead vocal duties, keeping a familiar voice in the mix. People forget that he was the primary vocalist on some of AIC’s best songs, including “Would,” “Heaven Beside You,” and “Don’t Follow,” and he more or less dueted with Staley on several other classics. So by singing most of the songs on BGWTB, Cantrell keeps the signature AIC sound together instead of just thrusting some new voice out there. He knows that for every Brian Johnson replacing Bon Scott, there’s a dozen Gary Cherone’s replacing David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar.

As for DuVall, an excellent singer in his own right, he makes the most of his mic time. He does a excellent job on harmonies to keep the album from sounding like one of Cantrell’s (excellent) solo records, and his lead singing on “Last Of My Kind” is one of the highlights of the record, especially since it has enough power to stand up to the riffs.

Oh, and lets not forget the riffs. As a whole, they’re are as good as on AIC’s eponymous third LP and are just a notch below “Dirt.” Cantrell has a gift in that he plays heavy guitar like no one else alive, and that combined with Mike Inez’s Earth-shaking bass and Sean Kinney’s caveman-esque drumming gives Chains a sound that Godsmack and Staind could never recreate, no matter how hard they try (oh, and have they tried). “Check My Brain” has that same combination of a hook-laden chorus and throbbing heaviness that AIC popularized on “Man In the Box” and “We Die Young,” while “Last of My Kind” and “A Looking In View” both call to mind the overt evilness of “Dirt” classic “Rain When I Die,” and the chorus riff to “Acid Bubble” is so crushing it’s like being trapped between a rock and another rock, which in turn is being smashed by yet another rock.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Chains record without a solid dose of acoustic numbers, and though there is no “Got Me Wrong” or “Brother,” there is the title track (featuring Elton fucking John on piano), which is a delicate tribute to Layne and a fitting end to the album.

As much as I am prone to comparing each song to the rest of the Alice In Chains canon, I know that is not the most fair way to judge “Black Gives Way To Blue.” Being that AIC spent such a long period of time out of the spotlight, I think you have to drop any nostalgia you have and listen to the album as if it was by a brand new band that you’d never heard of. Using that test, I think I can safely say that BGWTB is worthy of your $15 and certainly is one of the best hard rock releases of the year.

It’s been far too long since there was a popular hard rock band that could do more than scream bad lyrics, play dull two-chord riffs, or just blatantly rip off Alice In Chains. Thank God the real Alice In Chains is back.

Brent Stecker

About Brent Stecker

Brent is a journalist and small-time musician based in Wenatchee, Wash. His passion for music wasn’t discovered until his teenage years, however, when he first got his hands on a Rage Against the Machine CD. He spent the rest of his adolescence broadening his musical tastes, obsessively learning guitar, and harnessing his writing abilities in journalism classes.