Alice in Chains are a band with influence. Just look to their role in the recording of the latest Metallica release; lead-guitarist Kirk Hammett claimed that a picture of the late Alice in Chains lead singer Layne Staley on the wall of the studio was Metallica lead singer James Hetfield’s main inspiration for the album, “That picture was there for a long time,” said Hammett, “I think it pervaded James’ psyche.”
Staley’s drug addiction and eventual death in April 2002 forced Alice in Chains into an indefinite hiatus. This has resulted in their first new album for 14 years Black Gives Way To Blue being met with significant anticipation, with rumours about it swirling along the grape vine since their K-Rock Tsunami Benefit show in Seattle in February 2005.
The band has replaced vocal god Staley with former Comes With The Fall front man William DuVall and fans who have repeatedly voiced their concern that a new release sans Staley would tarnish the band’s reputation are sure to retract such statements, as DuVall and lead guitarist Jerry Cantrell fill his void near-seamlessly. Black Gives Way To Blue can be considered a monumental success for a band missing a piece as significant as Staley.
The album begins with the introductory All Secrets Known, which will immediately wash away any fears of a reformed Alice in Chains. The gloriously heavy guitar tones and gut-busting drums signal the beginning of something special. Cantrell tackles the void left by Staley early, singing, “Hope/A new beginning/Time/Time to start living/Like just before we died/There’s no going back/To the place/We started from.” Whilst a relatively simple track, it ensures that Alice in Chains are back, rather than just a Cantrell solo act.
Check My Brain, the album’s second single, tackles Cantrell’s thoughts of his move from the grunge-haven of Seattle to the commercial California and is as heavy as it is catchy and a great advertisement for the new album.
The next track Last Of My Kind, written by newcomer DuVall allows him to show off his vocals whilst Cantrell has a busy guitar solo over the fantastic riff sitting at the base of this song. While written by the band’s newcomer and not as complex as some Alice in Chains songs before it, it feels completely at home within the context of the album.
Your Decision soon follows and is a great return to the acoustic Jar Of Flies days, as Cantrell moves the song from an acoustic opening to a powerful and emotional body and ending. A lovely Cantrell guitar solo tops off what can only be described as a beautiful, moving song. One of my favourites.
The first single, and arguably the heaviest song on the album, A Looking In View is nothing but traditional Alice in Chains – heavy riffs, great vocals and thought-provoking lyrical themes – as Cantrell sings about staying locked in a cell one could easily escape, “A looking in view, too long on the outside/Desperate plans make sense in a low life.” When The Sun Rose Again comes next and is another acoustic piece taking Alice in Chains back to the EP days.
Acid Bubble is the masterpiece of the album. Set to an impossibly punchy slow groove provided by drummer Sean Kinney and backed by bassist Mike Inez, Cantrell and DuVall harmonize lyrics that seem to discuss the period of Alice in Chains when Staley separated himself from the rest of the band while they tried to contact him, “You tried to kill me off/Suprised, I remain/ A scale tips, impossible/ Afraid of my own name” and, “Alone inside your mind/Hides in a corner/Dies in a corner/Alone inside your mind.” This song moves through time signatures and time feels and can be considered not only a masterpiece of the album, but one of Alice in Chains’ finest works.
The next two songs, Lesson Learned and Take Her Out are more radio-friendly than their counterparts. However, their catchy hooks and thought-provoking lyrics, especially Lesson Learned which could be construed to be about Alice in Chains’ reformation with DuVall singing “You know when you find it/In your darkest hour, you strike gold/A thought clicks, not the be-all end-all/Just another lesson learned…” help maintain the quality within the record.
The final two songs of the album ensure it finishes in a fashion that ensures it is memorable. Private Hell immediately brings back memories of the irreplaceable hit Down In A Hole with similar lyrical ideas, “I excuse myself/I’m used to my little cell/I amuse myself/In my very own private hell” as well as similar construction, with the softer verse moving into epic choruses and short yet punchy guitar solos doubled with vocal lines furthering the comparison. Similar or not, there can be no argument that this song can be considered another piece of brilliant Alice in Chains composing.
Finally, Black Gives Way To Blue, the official Layne Staley tribute, rounds off the album. Featuring a guest spot from Elton John on the piano (Did I mention how influential they are?), Cantrell opens up about the demise of his former band member and friend, “Haunted by your ghost…” and, “Forcing a goodbye…/Lay down, black gives way to blue/Lay down, I’ll remember you.”
It is never easy replacing the lead vocalist of a successful band, especially one in a genre where the fans are so passionate regarding all things ‘traditional’. However, Black Gives Way To Blue is an album that is in a word: Fantastic. Yes, the mix is slightly bass-heavy and the vocals are missing some degree of ‘dirtiness’ that Staley provided, but any fan of Alice in Chains that does not enjoy this album is simply not a fan of Alice in Chains.
Cantrell and co. have produced a record that is as beastly and emotional as any great rock/grunge release. My love for this album extends to the point where it is my vote for rock album of the year. It is nigh-on impossible for any band to release an album – fourteen years after their previous release and without the most revered member of the band – that could top albums such as Facelift, Dirt or Alice In Chains and this album was never going to accomplish such an impossible feat. However, as the last note fades out in the fifty-fourth minute of ear-bursting madness, you can rest assured that somewhere in rock’n’roll heaven Layne Staley is smiling down upon his fellow band members, glad at what they have accomplished in his absence.