Music Review: Alice in Chains, Black Gives Way to Blue

Posted: October 2, 2009 in Album Reviews

It seems I’ve been stuck in an early to mid 90s grunge groove lately. Last week, I reviewed the outstanding new Pearl Jam release. A week later, Alice in Chains’ first album in 14 years comes out, and of course, I bought it.
I always enjoyed the Seattle bands, although I had trouble with calling all of them “alternative” or “grunge” bands. To me, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains and Soundgarden were four distinct, outstanding hard rock bands, some of the best of their era.
In their heyday, AIC cranked out sludgy, depressing tunes that often dealt with the band members’ (namely lead singer Layne Staley) struggles with drug addiction. What made them so much better than the numerous imitators (Staind, Godsmack, Nickelback, etc.) were great tunes and versatility. They put out three proper albums, as well as two excellent, mostly acoustic EPs. The vocal cohesion shared by Staley and guitarist Jerry Cantrell produced countless haunting harmonies, often sending chills down the spine.
Staley succumbed to his heroin addiction in 2002 while the band was on an extended hiatus (due to Staley’s sickness). Their last album with Staley was the underrated self-titled release in 1995, probably their best-sounding record production-wise (1992’s Dirt was their best songs-wise and it still stands as one of the greatest albums of that era). The group recorded a pair of tunes for their 1999 box-set Music Bank but that was it. Cantrell released a pair of Alice-esque solo albums, but it appeared the group was finished when Staley died.
In 2005, Cantrell, bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney regrouped to do a show for Asian psunami victims, eventually deciding they’d like to hit the road again.
Eventually, they picked former Comes with the Fall singer William DuVall as a new singer/rhythm guitarist for the band, eventually deciding to record an album under the Alice in Chains moniker again.
I’ll be the first to admit, I was highly skeptical about the project. Replacing well known lead singers in rock bands is very difficult, often resulting in failure. AC/DC, Van Halen and to a certain extent, Black Sabbath have been successful.
DuVall’s task wasn’t easy, but Cantrell made it a bit easier on him by singing lead on most of the new material. DuVall is the lead singer on one track (the searing “Last of My Kind”) and for the most part he sings co-lead with Cantrell or backup to the guitarist.
DuVall obviously isn’t Staley, but what surprises me is how well he blends with Cantrell’s vocals to produce those killer AIC harmonies. You can hear it throughout the album, but it especially shines through on the acoustic Indian-tinged track “When the Sun Rose Again” as well as the album’s best tracks “Acid Bubble” and “Private Hell.”
“Acid Bubble” lands right in the middle of the album, and it’s one of Cantrell’s best songs in years. It almost feels like three songs in one, with an extremely heavy bridge built around slower, more melodic passages.
Other highlights include current single “Check My Brain” (which has landed at #1 on billboard’s rock chart) and its down-tuned, off kilter riff that gets stuck in your head. Also of note is the closing tribute to Staley, the title track. Elton John played piano on the track and Cantrell sings extremely heartfelt lyrics to his former bandmate.
This album exceeded my expectations and then some. And I’m hoping it isn’t a one-off project (the band seems to be revitalized now), as I believe there is room for growth in Alice in Chains, phase two. I believe Staley would be happy with what the band has done here.
NOTE: I’ve been reading a lot of reviews for this album, many of which were positive. A few of the lukewarm reviews came in big publications Rolling Stone and Spin. That’s fine, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I have a problem when a short review is written by someone who seems to have A. never listened to the band and B. gave a cursory look at a few tracks from the album. The Spin reviewer said he thought the album would have been better had Cantrell sang lead more often. This guy obviously hasn’t listened to AIC before, because if he did, he would know that Cantrell was sang most of the tunes on the album. The Rolling Stone reviewer said the drama in the band was gone, because much of the great songs were turned out due to Staley’s drug addiction, saying the band’s catalogue played like a soundtrack to Staley’s battle with drugs, totally ignoring the fact that Cantrell was the band’s primary songwriter. And the band dealt with addiction a lot in the tunes, but it wasn’t the only subject matter (see Rooster, about Cantrell’s dad’s Vietnam experience). Oh well, to each his own. Just would like writers to be more informed about their subject matter.

The Sod rating: ****
Rating system
***** Hall of Fame album
**** Perennial All-Star
*** Solid starter
** Bench warmer
* Jose Lima and Sal Fasano

Other Alice in Chains albums
Facelift (1990) ***
Sap (1991) *** 1/2
Dirt (1992) *****
Jar of Flies (1994) **** 1/2
Alice in Chains (1995) ****
Music Bank (1999) *** 1/2

  1. Marcie H. R. says:

    You are SO right about dirt, Sod.

    Thanks for the review. I’m going out to get it tomorrow.

    • Andrew Sodergren says:

      It’s great to have the Chains back. It’s eerie how much this album sounds like vintage AIC. Very pleasantly surprised.

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