By Johnny Firecloud at 8:39 AM Tuesday, September 22nd 2009
Honoring or even replicating a multiplatinum band’s legacy after their lead singer dies is a sticky situation no matter what the scenario. AC/DC may have made it look like a cakewalk, but most others are on a path to glorified karaoke.
For Black Gives Way To Blue, Alice In Chains‘ first full-length album in 14 years, careful steps were taken to make sure the record was worthy of the band name, and not to box new singer William DuVall (of Comes With The Fall, who also played in Cantrell’s solo band) into a Layne Staley impression.
“We have never worked this fucking hard on a record,” guitarist Jerry Cantrell told Rolling Stone. “It’s a hell of a challenge to try to add to a legacy. It takes a big set of fucking balls — four sets of balls — to take on a challenge like this, and we did it for the same reasons we made music before. We care about it, we respect what we did, and we also respect the fact that we want to continue to make music with each other, so there’s a certain level that it has to live up to.”
Such is the case when your mascot lead singer is dead and you try to regain your former glory. The record sounds precisely like what it is: an updated rehashing of a sound and style that’s fourteen years old. Had Alice In Chains remained intact and continued to release material in the nineties, it certainly wouldn’t sound like anything like Black Gives Way To Blue. But the nostalgia trip is part of the draw here, if not a mandate, and Cantrell and Co. have carefully crafted their return in a way that treads those familiar paths, but gently pushes forward. Too gently, it turns out, but the polar alternative would be much less desirable, so to err on the side of respect for one’s own legacy can’t be faulted – as long as the sound isn’t entirely reliant upon the past.
Opener All Secrets Known is evidence in itself of the meticulous care Jerry Cantrell has taken in shaping the revival. The familiar lumbering guitar riffs and chugging low end are certainly like putting on an old favorite jacket, relating and reminiscing, seeing if it still fits. DuVall’s lengthy moans, coupled with Cantrell’s faithful harmonies, outline the style similarities to his predecessor, but impressionism is checked at the door. When the song breaks open at the halfway point, leading to a despairing, amputated solo, rays of evolution shine through. Hope begins to sprout for this new formula.
The menacing beehive buzz of Check My Brain is all over radio at the moment, and for good reason; it’s the best song on the album, an electric wire riff with peeling leads left and right under an impossibly addictive chorus that rivals any hook in the band’s history by way of memorability.
Subtle experimentation is vital to the album’s believability as a supplement to the legacy rather than a leech. The weak points, including the Megadeth spin on Last of My Kind and loping groove of Take Her Out, are minor and forgivable offenses, particularly given the success of downtempo tabla-tap acoustic jam When The Sun Rose Again and radio-hit in waiting Your Decision.
The lyrical constructs are sentimental reflections on regret and loss, but there’s no necrophilic tendency to be found here. The album-closing title track (yes, Elton John plays piano) is a direct ode to Staley, a narrative of the collective healing process of a band who’s lost a voice, a brother, a core piece of their foundation. At only three minutes long, the song ends too soon, leaving a void that serves its reminding purpose.
For a group nearly caught in the mire of their own tragic history, Alice In Chains have returned with respect and justice served. A fairly predictable step under the looming cloud of what was, but a well-executed one nonetheless. Now that honor has fully been paid and the brush has been cleared, further greatness may still lie ahead for these rock survivors.