On July 3rd 1996 in Kansas City, Missouri, Alice In Chains played a final gig with lead singer Layne Staley. On the 5th April 2002 he died of cocaine and heroin abuse, aged 34. With guitarist Jerry Cantrell about to release his second solo album and in spite of his comments a month earlier about the possibility of reforming, Alice In Chains was no more. Until now. Since 2005, the band has flirted with different lead singers and finally settled on William DuVall for a reunion tour. At first drummer Sean Kinney dismissed the idea of recording a new album, still haunted by the ghost of Staley, honouring his memory and that of a band now long gone, but last year Alice In Chains officially reformed. The result is the band's fourth studio recording Black Gives Way To Blue, the first for fourteen years.
Back in 1992, Alice In Chains were just another Seattle band. Not quite Pearl Jam or Nirvana, not quite metal and a bit too goth for grunge, the band filled a hole but never stood out from the crowd. Dirt is a great album, followed by the acoustic Jar of Flies, but nothing like this. Black Gives Way To Blue is the album Queens Of The Stone Age can only dream about. Now, in the same year that Pearl Jam released a short, punchy, resurgent ninth album, Alice In Chains has opted for a completely different approach. Black Gives Way To Blue is massive. With an average song length of five minutes and two around seven, this collection of dark-edged, gloom-rock, guitar anthems is a challenge, but an absorbing and rewarding one.
"A new beginning...Time to start living, like just before we died...". The opening lyrics of All Secrets Known pull no punches. This is a band being up-front and honest about where they are. The single Check My Brain is a glorious distorted guitar-grind with a soaring upbeat chorus about moving to Los Angeles: "California’s alright. Somebody check my brain". Last Of My Kind is Alice In Chains of old, blending churning guitars with dark vocal melodies and an old-school Metallica-esque hook. At nearly four minutes, the guitar-work intensifies for the last two minutes. The first sign of the band's acoustic side is the majestic Your Decision - again more brilliance from Cantrell and bassist Inez. An impressive first half ends with the seven minute epic, and first single, A Looking In View. This is the band at its darkest, all muddy grinding multi-layered guitars, demonic vocals through clenched teeth and strained muscles. Powerful stuff. The DuVall and Cantrell combination is intense and harmonic in equal measures and another great outro sees out the final minute.
When The Sun Rose Again has excellent melancholic vocals from the outset. This is another dark acoustic ballad with a brief blast of electric at the central point. This leads to Acid Bubble, heavy with evil chords on each verse lifting for a lighter chorus. It is one of the only times the album begins to drag, every note is protracted and drawn out. But then it changes, completely. This wouldn't be a great rock album without some 'prog' injected into the rock. After the brief interlude, the song settles down again for more of the same, only to return in the final minute. Lessons Learned is much more interesting with purposeful vocals, driving guitars, and another lifting hook/chorus: "..know when to find it. In your darkest hour, you strike gold..." just about sums up the nature of Black Gives Way To Blue. Take Her Out tries the same thing but feels overdone given all that has come before. More excellent guitars try to liven things but this could easily be removed and the album wouldn't suffer.
Into the final two tracks and Private Hell is exactly what is claims to be. One of the times the obvious references to Layne Staley are revealed, this is a heartfelt and honest tribute. One of the best songs musically. But the tribute is in two parts. The title track brings the album to a close. Featuring piano from Elton John (yes, really), Black Gives Way To Blue is the only way to finish this album. "Tomorrow's haunted by your ghost" becomes "Tomorrow’s forcing a goodbye" and the album ends with the words: "I'll remember you". What could have been a depressing moody ten minute grind-fest ends in delicate controlled lightness and hope.
The decision to replace Staley with DuVall, a singer who has an uncanny likeness to Staley, is both brave and logical. The vocalist in a band is just another instrument, equally as important as every other member of the band pulling equal weight. You wouldn't substitute a cello for a banjo, or add a Gibson Les Paul to a string quartet. It makes no sense to break the sound that defines what you are. Alice In Chains retains its sound thanks to DuVall, but for the most part due to Cantrell, still the core of the band (all but two songs are written exclusively by him). The trademark dark harmonies are ever present thanks to further contributions from Inez. No singer is replaceable. Queen is a perfect example of this - if you have to change the sound, change the band and move on. So, it's hard not to accept this album without some emotion but it is easy to accept it musically. With masterful production from Nick Raskulinecz, and excellent musicianship throughout, Black Gives Way To Blue is a painful grieving process manifesting as a huge triumphant behemoth of a rock album.
-- CS (for The Music Magazine)