Man, have I been waiting to write this review.
I remember when I first heard Alice in Chains – it was 1997, and someone at my school lent me a mixtape of several bands (that also included Pearl Jam), the opening two tracks on side A of which were Them Bones and Dam That River. I knew I had hit something that resonated, because I couldn’t stop singing the two tunes whenever I was away from my cassette deck.
And 12 years later I still can’t.
Maybe I was very green at the time, but I hadn’t heard a band do those kinds of rhythms before, not in metal or grunge. On top of that, over the thundering snarl of what should have been a “metal” song came this ethereal fallen angel voice of a man I was destined never to see live, the band’s leader Layne Staley. And the harmonies, twisted and made possible by guitarist and secondary singer and main song-writing force Jerry Cantrell. Together they were the haunted, warped version of that “frontman/lead guitarist” relationship worn by Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, you know the drill, the list goes on.
Staley’s death in 2002 was discovered three days after my birthday. I still have his obituary torn out of the Daily Telegraph somewhere.
And so, I thought, I would never be around for a new Chains release, that I’d have to just be (very) happy with their back catalogue, Staley’s only other complete (and awesome) album Mad Season and follow Jerry’s solo work, which I liked, but it had to be said, not as much as Jar of Flies, Dirt et al.
But since the 2005 Tsunami concert momentum has built – first William DuVall joined the band full-time after touring previously in Cantrell’s support – and when in 2008 Alice announced after extensive touring that a new album was on the way, it seemed that the fans, at least the ones who write on the net, were supportive (read “insanely giddy at the prospect”) of a new Chains album, even with dear departed Layne out of the picture.
In August Listening party reports started hitting the net – overwhelmingly positive. Skeptical fans reserved their judgement – which was fair enough. Staley’s vocals have been often imitated (almost always poorly by the likes of Puddle of Mudd, “Worst Band In The World” Creed, Nickelback, mid-to-late-era Stone Temple Pilots, Days of the New and Godsmack whose name is even taken from a song on Dirt) – the last thing they wanted to see was a goddamned imitator IN Alice in Chains itself.
This video pretty much explains what the fans were worries about:
So to the album…
As if to reference their member-by-member entry onto the stage at the MTV Unplugged show where they left off in 1996, the opener All Secrets Known is a jabby muted Cantrell riff, slowly joined by bass, then drums, then finally Staley.
A New Beginning
Time to start living
like just before we die.
There’s no going back to the place
We started from…
OK OK it’s NOT Staley. But it might as well be…DuVall’s voice must be the only one in existence that can fill Staley’s shoes. And it’s thanks to the good luck of Jerry and co that they found him out of 6 billion people. Because as the voice slowly fills the landscape, and a harmonized chorus of layered voices including Cantrell’s crescendo out and expand, you start wondering why the fuck we can’t have more music like this all the time.
The album balances slow “pretty music that makes you want to die” as drummer Sean Kinney once said quoted in Staley’s obituary with more acoustic fare, with some songs like Acid Bubble deliberately splicing very heavy with very light, and flicking the switch between them and making you fall out of your seat and fumble for the tracklist to see if you’re onto the next song yet.
BUILT INTO THE SYSTEM!
Now it has to be said that some parts of the album are a little weak. Your Decision, destined for radio release soon, is surprisingly conventional compared with what wonderous acoustic beauty we had on Jar of Flies. And while most of Last of My Kind is incredible, one lyric about “fucking liars” is so surprisingly out of place (the band have always impressed me with their vocal quality, which happened not to include swear-words) that it feels like the album is about to take a turn for the worse .
By far the strongest tracks are the already released Check My Brain, a bendy semi-tone scaled snake of a track, and A Looking in View, an 804 minute epic featuring some of the best riffs in Chains’ career. Add to that the opener, and my personal favourite Private Hell – listen to this whilst looking at the album art-work of the mother and daughter on a moonscape and I swear you can feel the cold desolate atmosphere creep in – wonderful lilting echoed “Uh-Huh”s and subtle key-changes make this the star track on the album and put’s it in my five favourite Alice songs.
I excuse myself I’m used to my little cell
I amuse myself in my very own private hell…
Something about the riffs and tight harmonized DuVall/Cantrell partnership draws contemplation out of the listener. It’s currently on repeat anywhere I go. And no you can’t play your own music in “your own house”, not now that we have this. Move over.
The final track, the eponymous track with Elton John subtly on piano, and the first overtly Staley-related song the band have made, is the hardest to listen to emotionally; especially if you’ve watched the Electronic Press Kit Video Alice released a few hours ago. Members of the band were breaking down in tears, Kinney describes a panic attack that gripped him and reduced him to sitting on a bathroom floor, and Cantrell suffered a three-week migraine brought on by “undigested grief” after he had penned the ballad.
Show me ANY song in mainstream music that has that much emotional weight behind it. Yeah, thought not.
Black Gives Way To Blue is a band wearing it’s heart on its sleeve, as the cover subtly implies. The brutal bitter-sweet Alice in Wonderland vibe is still there, preserved in the mock-Victorian art-work, filthy guitars, Kinney’s fantastic tasteful breakbeat drumming, Mike Inez’s distant thunder detuned “bass of death” and Cantrell’s enviable song-writing skill topped off with those harmonic vocals. A storming success with a few minor hiccups. To be honest the first thing I thought once I had heard this album once through was;
“Man, when are they going to release the next one?”
Until then, I have a new set of songs to have on repeat.