Released: September 29, 2009
Full disclosure: I have always been a rabid Alice in Chains fan. But I have to admit, I wanted to hate this CD. A new release after lead singer Layne Staley’s death didn’t seem right to me. However, Black Gives Way To Blue has seriously grown on me, and I urge anyone who is a fan of the band or of the genre to give it a try.
No band blends painful, tortured lyrics together with grungy, distorted riffs in quite the same way as Alice in Chains. With lyrics like, “I want you to kill me, and dig me under/I want to live no more” from 1992’s “Dirt,” Alice in Chains seems like another whiny emo band; very cliché now over 15 years later. But strangely enough, the band seems to be the one of only ones that can pull off such depressing lyrics without the music sounding hokey.
Alice in Chains was started in Seattle in 1987 by lead singer Layne Staley and guitarist Jerry Cantrell. Two of their albums topped the Billboard charts, 1994’s Jar of Flies and 1995’s Alice in Chains. They have had 11 top ten songs, and six Grammy nominations. Along with Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains was one of the frontrunners of the grunge scene, and one of the most successful rock bands in the 1990s. You might know them from songs such as “Them Bones” and “Man In The Box,” which can be heard on Guitar Hero and Rockband today.
That being said, Alice in Chains is no longer the same raw, disturbed band that it was in the mid-90s. Tragically, lead singer Layne Staley died of an overdose spurred by his depression in 2002. Without Staley, the band went on hiatus for three years, and then reunited with new lead singer William Duvall. Black Gives Way To Blue is the band’s first studio album in 14 years.
With new singer Duvall, the band has a completely new sound. While still pulling from its grunge and heavy metal roots, the sound is more polished. Black Gives Way To Blue lacks the pure emotion that Layne Staley’s vocals brought, but yet it brings something completely new.
It’s easier to compare the new CD to Jerry Cantrell’s solo album, Degradation Trip. Both are full of the powerful riffs and dramatic lyrics that Cantrell has always written, but both seem to be longing for Staley. Appropriate, since both mourn the death of the late singer in many of the tracks. In addition to familiar riffs, Cantrell takes lead vocals on many songs in Black Gives Way To Blue, which helps the sound seem more familiar to old fans.
Duvall’s strength is also his weakness: he sounds a bit like Staley. He has the same vocal power and amazing vibrato that Staley possessed, but he lacks the fierce pain that always came through in Staley’s songs. However, he sounds great in concert on all of the old tracks, and blends in well with the remaining core members of Alice in Chains: Sean Kinney, Mike Inez and Jerry Cantrell. The core trio is perhaps what makes this dynamic work: Alice in Chains is similar enough to appease old fans, but Duvall’s fresh blood gives the band appeal to new fans as well, and shakes up the sound. The result? An album that sounds familiar, yet nothing like any album the band has put out before.
The opening track “All Secrets Known” really grabs the listener in and uses the same distorted but beautiful melodies that Jerry Cantrell is known for. Crooning, “There’s no going back to the place we started from,” Cantrell brings up the death of Staley and lets fans know that it’s “time to start living” by playing again without him. The single, “Check My Brain,” initially sounds a little generic. But I urge listeners to revisit it. It is so catchy; it will definitely grow on you. “A Looking In View” is one of the strongest tracks on the album. At over seven minutes, it is a grunge epic with extremely heavy riffs and strong drum beats. “When The Sun Rose Again” is reminiscent of Jar of Flies, combining melancholy lyrics with beautiful, somewhat sad melodies. Both of these tracks sound most like the old Alice in Chains, so old fans will approve. The closing track “Black Gives Way To Blue” is the slowest track on the album. The chorus of “Lay down, black gives way to blue/Lay down, I’ll remember you” seems a perfect way to pay tribute to the late Staley, and to end the album.
Layne Staley was the epitome of a tortured artist, and it’s fair to say Alice in Chains will never sound quite the same without him. However, Black Gives Way To Blue soars despite his absence.