The concept of a “divisive album” is usually an easy one to grasp, occurring whenever a band’s fanbase is split between those who give up, and the ones who keep up with the changes. But that concept can also be applied when the exact opposite happens – a band changing so little from one record to the next that some people will lose interest, while others will be pleased to get exactly what they wanted. With their fifth LP The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, Alice In Chains fall into the later category of divisiveness.
The band’s first record with new singer William Duvall came in 2009, with the surprisingly strong Black Gives Way to Blue, an effort that managed to both revive the group and push them forward, achieving more than a mere nostalgia trip. The ground, it seemed, was set for further growth and change in the future, especially now that listeners who remained faithful were used to Duvall’s voice. Four years later, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here doesn’t follow suit to those expectations, and instead stays the course for the band.
Much like their self-titled 1995 LP opened with the repetitive Grind (an otherwise appropriate title for that record), opener Hollow is indicative of what lies ahead. The 5-minute assault of riffs and harmonized vocals between DuVall and guitarist/singer Jerry Cantrell are the basic foundation of The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, with some obligatory degrees of variation to follow later on. Pretty Done contains the appropriately bizarre, sick guitar that’s become one of Alice In Chains’ trademarks, pulled off like no other group can, and still a fairly remarkable feat.
Then you realize that ten minutes have passed, and you’re still just two tracks into this album. Having track lengths that go well over five minutes in most cases, combined with songs that don’t sound all that different from each other (or from what the band produced in the past), makes for a tiresome listen from start to finish, especially at first. Thankfully, small flourishes start to pop up over repeated listens, and give certain sections of the record more life.
Moments like the single Stone, when listened to out of the context of the record, can sound as tight as “classic” AIC material, rather than just another riff-oriented jam in the mix. The semi-acoustic jams Voices and Scalpel, carried by actual melodies, lighten up the mood, and thrive for whatever variety they provide. And even though tracks like Low Ceiling and Lab Monkey usually wouldn’t add to much of anything to the whole, they serve as a platform for Jerry Cantrell’s impressive guitar solos, and are redeemed through truly heartfelt breakdowns towards their respective ends.
The final act is properly set up with Phantom Limb, which contains more punch and better dynamics than any other song here. Since Cantrell and Duvall’s vocals are in harmony throughout most of the record, it’s a true breath of fresh air when the latter actually gets a chance to sing lead on the menacing Hung on a Hook – it’s just a shame that it didn’t happen more often. Those two songs, along with the title track, stand as few examples of the band actually improving their sound and achieving true greatness. Unfortunately, closing number Choke is rather unceremonious, and tends to accentuate any mixed feelings that may have inflicted listeners throughout the album.
Where its predecessor took some worthwhile risks, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here goes the other way and focuses on Alice In Chains’ well-known, solidified formula. To say that they went into autopilot would be inaccurate, as their heart really seems to be poured into the music. Though Jerry Cantrell said it himself, “I don’t think you’ll be surprised by anything you hear,” there are a few surprising moments here, and they are the reasons to come back. It’s a shame that, mixed into the sequence, they blend in and diminish the whole, making for an end product that, unless examined closely, sounds like less than the sum of its parts.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.