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Alice in Chains release their 4th studio album

PREAMBLE

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.

Then nothing.

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…

ALBUM REVIEW

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.

Hope
A New Beginning
Time…
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.

INTENT OBSOLESCENCE
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.

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It’s a mystery to me why so many artists keep releasing their worst songs from their albums to the public. In fact it’s a completely weird thing that we still release singles at all. Considering no-one cares about what used to be called “The Hit parade” anyway, it seems downright old-fashioned that we bother marketing albums that way at all.

Some would argue that it’s a neat way of getting a taster of the album out to the public before the whole thing drops. A few factors scupper that point – for one, a release date is now nothing more than a wishful thinking fiction. Every album in the last 3 years (and most movies) leak anywhere from a few days early to a whole month (think of Origins: Wolverine, which made it to our screens more than a month ahead of time in the form of a perfect quality Workprint, albeit with unfinished special effects…not to mention the perfect quality final releases that make it weeks ahead of time courtely of some little pirate (or collection of pirates) called Axxo) – and while we’re talking marketing, wouldn’t it be cleverer to use interfaces like iTunes, that allow individual song purchases, to market individual tracks from upcoming releases instead? You could allow users to pick which song they want to have ahead of time. It’s not going to adversely affect piracy, which is GIVING away ALL the tracks ahead of time.

The other problem is that, as stated at the beginning, the best songs don’t seem to be the ones that are slated for singledom – now, that’s obviously subjective, but many people will agree, and most likely it’s not the band’s fault – Labelheads tell them to make one Radio Friendly garbage bag so they can get “the name out there” at the expense of the band’s real musical identity.

Days of The New released what was squarely the worst track on the Orange album, Touch, Peel and Stand (What does that even mean?) and THAT track made them a household name. Nickelback went one further and not only release garbage singles all the time but an entire back-catalogue of twattery usually worse than the singles themselves. Here, have a rock in the face, Chad. But hey, at least their singles match their albums in consistence, you have to hand them that (preferably handed to them wrapped in a dog-shit covered pipe-bomb whilst actually saying the word “LOL.”)

So on to Eminem‘s Relapse, an album I’ve been waiting for for over 2 years (ever since everyone thought it was going to be called King Mathers.) First off, the album is easily his best release since The Marshall Mathers LP. It’s also one of only a few interesting rap/hip-hop releases in the last 5 years (the others for me being Saul Williams’ Niggy Tardust, Talib Kweli’s Eardrum, El-P’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead and Just Plain Ant’s Dig Deep (the most unknown of the pack, and the most low-key too.)

Problem is, the four singles (Yes there’s FOUR of them – 3am, We Made You, Crack a Bottle, Old Times Sake) are so fucking weak. The production value behind the beats and loops sound like they’re around $8.46 including VAT – and although the flows on 3am and Old Times Sake are up to scratch, all four feature Eminem’s new heavily annoying “half-Arabic-half-Reggae” rap style – and given that it’s so pervasive in every single, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the whole album is sung in comical spaz style. But it’s not.

There are more than a handful of songs on the album that singlehandedly justify buying the whole thing. They are My Mom (more stories about his “neglectful” parent), Insane (more stories of abuse and incest”, Hello (a dark track about rehab and psychosis), Same Song and Dance (an ode to a girl Em’s Psychopath is about to kill), Medicine Ball (A song to the world at large, labelling it his therapeutic playground), Beautiful (the same register as Toy Soldiers but instead focussing on his troubled artist life) and the most explosive track of all, Underground – a twisted 6 minute11 second anger explosion filled with orchestral strikes and counter-rhythmic guitar pluck loops – basically it’s fucking incredible. And it’s all topped off with the first funny Ken Kaniff skit since The Marshall Mathers LP – it even features tap dancing whilst singing a pastiche of We Made You with the chorus line “I Don’t have to Rape You.

So that’s at 7 untouchable songs plus the decently passable 3am (backed by a very good video) and Bagpipes from Baghdad (despite the “Arapic”, although it’s in context here). Given that 5 more Relapse tracks are skits (and very good ones at that), that’s more than half an 80+ minute album that’s completely fantastic. So to pick the 3 hands-down worst tracks plus 3am is pretty shitty odds considering the wealth of quality on offer for promotion.

In short, don’t let the outmoded marketing of singles, or poor song choices thereof, put you off – this album is very very strong indeed. I can’t wait to see what Relapse 2 has to offer.

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