Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Review: Alice In Chains-Black Gives Way To Blue

Make no mistake about it, grunge is not back. It has been 12 years since we heard anything from Alice in Chains. 12 long years full of box sets, greatest hits packages and waiting for the inevitable end of Layne Staley. The death of their legendary vocalist in 2002, came as a shock but no surprise to many and finally managed to stop them in their tracks(pun intended). Yet guitarist/vocalist/lyricist Jerry Cantrell still had music in him and went on to release 2 relatively well received solo albums during and after the drugged out demise of Staley: Boggy Depot in 1998 and Degradation Trip in 2002. The AIC fans seemed content with what was left, knowing that replacing Layne was an impossible task.

Flash forward to 2009 and their immensely hyped new album Black Gives Way To Blue and the permanent addition of "new singer" William DuVall to the band. DuVall is a talented singer who has actually been a part of AIC since a reunion tour in 2006. His vocals loom around the same register as Staley, but he certainly isn't a clone.. The problem may or may not be the effectiveness of his presence. Let me explain.. I was really hoping to love this album. It has many of Alice In Chains circa 1993 checkpoints covered, the bulky heaviness, the roomy sustained riffs, the acoustic curveball, the layers of vocals,etc. That is all good, super flannel-riffic, even. The problem lays in the overthinking of the ideas behind what made AIC great.

First of all, Mr. Duvall is barely there. He takes the lead vocal on only ONE complete song out of 11, the brooding "Last of My Kind". His clear role is back-up singer on this album, which is loaded with over- abundant stretches of doubled or tripled up vocal tracks. This is an AIC trademark, but here it seems like too much of a crutch on songs like the current radio hit "Check My Brain" which has not one verse or even a word without a doubled up/harmony vocal. This is a Jerry record, as well it should be. So many fans hardly realize that Jerry sang a co-lead on many of the AIC classics, and he more than holds his own here, especially on the mildly acoustic "Your Decision" and the ode to Layne/album ending title track, with guest piano provided by Sir Elton John.

To my surprise, the tempo of this album churns cautiously in a second gear- like gloomy cruise control through bummed -out burly riffs and  Sean Kinney's reverb drenched drums. This seemed a bit calculated as well: yes they do sound like themselves, even dated in places but some songs drag on like shelved out-takes from the "Tripod" album. I could have used an 8 cylinder jolt like Sickman or Them Bones in places where I was left floating out in the slow lane of riffdom.

I guess I'm just glad to have most of Alice in Chains back making music, even though they have tripped over their own emotional decisions in more places than not on this album. I hope they cure the Layne legacy blues  on the next record, un-"chain" Mr. Duvall, and turn up the octane in places where there will be no ghosts.

6 out of 10 horns up.

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