Alice In Chains: Black Gives Way To Blue

Alice In Chains last released a studio album in 1995.  They released live albums in 1996 and 2000.  Lead vocalist Layne Staley died in 2002.  Yet here they are in 2009 with a new album and a new vocalist William DuVall.  The obvious move for Jerry Cantrell, of course, would have been to have started a new band with a new name.  Not doing that opens him up to criticisms of exploitation.  But, and I don’t think I’m alone in this, this feels like a continuation…and kind of even the right continuation of the band.

As a whole, this album is more in line with their weakest prior album, their 1995 self-titled release, with a more mellow, less hard-hitting vibe.  The angst-sharpened edge from Dirt is still gone.  And, despite Dirt being what the band will forever be known for, that’s not a bad thing.  I mean, you can’t keep making an excessively angry record.  It’s exhausting for the band and for the fans.  Everybody experiences anger, and for some of us it’s even kind of a default reaction to even slight setbacks, but to endlessly dwell in it is something that should best be generally avoided.

While this, at first blush, seems more like Alice In Chains than anything else, when dissected you hear references, quotes almost, to Dirt and Jar Of Flies.  “Your Decision” would have fit right in on Jar Of Flies, as would have “Lesson Learned,” though in the latter case it would have been far and away the best track on that EP.  Dirt‘s “Down In A Hole” re-appears on “Private Hell,” which also seems to hint at that album’s “Rooster.”

Staley’s death was remarkable for being so simultaneously tragic and predictable.  Found dead in his apartment from an overdose after having been dead for days, one of the world’s biggest rock stars, who sung endlessly about the wonders and horrors of heroin, died alone in the University District of Seattle, his last several human contacts undoubtedly with his dealers.  It felt as empty and pointless as his lyrics told us it would be.  How it couldn’t be helped is mind-numbingly depressing.

Anyway…sigh…this all seems to be referenced on “Your Decision” and “Black Gives Way To Blue,” the album closer that doesn’t close because it doesn’t resolve, just leaving you to float away into silence.  The album opener, “All Secrets Known,” chuggily builds in pure Alice In Chains style and seems to directly reference the public perception predicament the band has created for themselves.  DuVall sounds quite a bit like Staley on the first two tracks before going to a a cleaner vocal style on the next two.  I’m not sure newcomers to the band would want to start here, but for fans who have been along for the ride since Facelift, it all works as an honest melding of past, present, and potential.

I’ve had more trouble settling on a rating for this album than I have in a long time.  A 3.5-clown rating usually means there’s some very strong points that are held back by some failures.  But a three-clown rating usually signifies a positive-but-muted reaction.  This is different.  Sure, there are a few weak points, most notably “When The Sun Rose Again,” and there are times when good songs go on too long (“Private Hell,” “Acid Bubble”).  But for the most part this is just plain solid.  Good songwriting, good performances, good soloing.  At times very good, at times a bit weak, but the standard deviation on quality is remarkably narrow.  So maybe I’m giving them a low-expectations and/or your-lead-singer-did handicap here, or maybe I’m just finding it hard to keep ragging on the heroes of my adolescence.  But this is significantly better than anything they’ve done since Dirt and it’s pretty darned good.

So there you go, 3.5 clowns.  It seems Layne Staley’s purpose was to make Facelift, Sap, and Dirt, but Jerry Cantrell has more to do.  This is one snapshot of him working on that.

Rating:
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Keep: “All Secrets Known,” “Check My Brain,” “Last Of My Kind,” “Lesson Learned,” “Take Her Out”
Like:
“Your Decision,” “A Looking In View,” “When The Sun Rose Again,” “Acid Bubble,” “Private Hell,” “Black Gives Way To Blue”

Notes:

  • Given that the Loudness Wars are referenced on this album’s Wikipedia page, I’d be remiss not to mention it.  Even without seeing that reference, I’d thought, “Now this is the way to fight the loudness wars.”  Yes, everything is way too compressed, and  yes, all nuance is lost.  When I listen to this on shuffle with the rest of their discography, I have to turn down the volume at least two notches for these songs.  But at least there’s no digital distortion.  At least they didn’t commit any Loudness War Crimes.  I can live with this.
  • I suppose there’s a bit of a same-key-same-tempo problem here, but what is Alice In Chains if not a key and a tempo?

Track Notes:

  1. All Secrets Known – Sounds like a really cool way to start this off.
  2. Check My Brain – Kind of like a low-end siren going in the background of the verses.  Cool choruses of “Ca-a-lifornia.”
  3. Last Of My Kind – The first track that popped up on shuffle.  I knew there would be a different vocalist, but I was still shocked when he started singing and it sounded so different.  “I’m the last of my kind still standing.”  Think i’m digging this.
  4. Your Decision – Very Jar Of Flies-ish
  5. A Looking In View – Dirt-era riff.  Tres grunge.  I like it.
  6. When The Sun Rose Again –
  7. Acid Bubble – Switches songs about 2:45 in.  At that point goes to “It’s an obsolescence/Built into the system.”
  8. Lesson Learned –
  9. Take Her Out – That’s a disturbing title…at least read one way.  Good tune, though.  One of the better ones.
  10. Private Hell – Could have come right off of Dirt.  It’s more “Down In A Hole,” but I can hear some of “The Rooster” in there, too.
  11. Black Gives Way To Blue – Slower and quieter.  Piano. Okay.
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