ALICE IN CHAINS: BLACK
1) All Secrets Known; 2) Check My Brain; 3) Last Of My Kind; 4) Your Decision; 5) A Looking In View; 6) When The Sun Rose Again; 7) Acid Bubble; 8) Lesson Learned; 9) Take Her Out; 10) Private Hell; 11) Black Gives Way To Blue.
Staley's tragic, but more or less predictable drug-related demise in 2002 seemed to have sealed Alice In Chains' future. Not that they really needed one: with Tripod, they had pretty much said all they had to say — and, besides, Layne had already been properly dead ever since that album's release, as can be easily seen on the video for Unplugged. Accordingly, Cantrell, still very much alive and musically active, concentrated on his own solo career. For a while.
A few years after Layne's death, however, it somehow turned out that the remaining band members sort of missed each other, and this led to a series of reunion concerts with various friends invited as temporary lead vocalists. One of these turned out to be William DuVall, singer and guitarist of Comes With The Fall, a minor hard rock outfit from Atlanta — and, seeing as how he was able to invoke Staley's spirit better than the rest, one thing led to another, until, at the tail end of the decade, the reformed band unexpectedly found itself in the studio releasing new material under the name of Alice of Chains.
Formally, I suppose, they have a right to do that. After all, Cantrell was not only one of the founding members, but he wrote ninety percent of the music and a good share of the lyrics, not to mention being responsible for most of the band's musical evolution. So, if Black Gives Way To Blue does not sound anything like Dirt or Tripod, this does not imply that the first thing to do is run to the office and change the name. Besides, it does sound closer to Dirt than Sgt. Pepper sounds to Please
But we all have our rights, don't we? They have a right to keep calling themselves Alice In Chains — and I have a right to proclaim that this album is a pile of dreck. Add to this your, the reader's, right to follow this up by saying that I am an idiot that should go back to his Barry Manilow collection, and we have all done a great job of asserting our individual freedom and making the world a happy, progressive place.
In all honesty, Black Gives Way To Blue is a fine, subtle title, but I'd rather prefer it didn't. The band does do everything possible to ensure that the record is not simply an exercise in nostalgia, nor is it a commercial trap or a dishonest cash-in on the respectable band name. The music is brutally heavy; from a technical point — heavier than Dirt, and undoubtedly much louder. If seen from that point of view, progression is obvious. Yet the musical structures themselves are unfocused, going for atmosphere rather than original melodicity. Where Jerry comes up with a really good riff, he rams it into the ground for about five or six minutes, until you start breathing it out like tobacco smoke; and where the songs are shorter, he usually does not come up with a really good riff, no matter how hard I try to convince myself that he does.
I think we need not go much further than the first track to have this understood. The three chords that open the song, you are going to hear a lot of them — they do not go away until the song clocks in at , and, although there is more stuff happening melodically in between, the backbone of the performance is more boring than any single Alice In Chains song from the band's glory days. A fine way to start your new album where you are going to have something to prove!
If Tripod could be, with reservations, pigeonholed as «sludge metal», Black Gives Way To Blue is probably closer to «stoner rock» — hypnotic, mid-tempo songs that roll along in a loud, aggressive musical haze, all deep heavy drones and wave-like power chords. That's all right, as long as the haze has a face, that is, can be distinguished from a million other similar hazes. But somehow, somewhere, Cantrell just seems to have lost it. There are occasional flashes of the old genius, but most of them have to do with punch rather than atmosphere: for instance, at 2:43 into 'Acid Bubble', when that chugging, crushing riff emerges from under the rubble and gives you a serious jolt — only to disappear back into the rubble a few seconds later.
The greatest, most active disappointment, however, one that I believe may be trigerring the rest of them, is the singing. To put it bluntly, there is no singing on the record. None whatsoever. None of the songs are instrumentals, and yet it would perhaps have been better, had they all been instrumentals. Lead vocals are handled mainly by Cantrell himself, sometimes singing in unison with DuVall, but they just have zero presence. Zero. They hit the notes, get across their boring, insignificant lyrical points, and disappear with no emotional response at all. What are they singing about? Pain? Hatred? Disillusionment? Desperation? I have no idea, nor do I strive to get one. I only wonder if this all happens because they are so overshadowed by the loudness of the guitars — or if they intentionally hide behind that loudness to mask this emotional hollowness.
Maybe it differs on different songs. For 'Check My Brain', for instance, Cantrell manages to invent a killer riff, probably the best on the album, trickily warped and bent so as to disorient and confuse the mind, yet utterly and immediately memorable. It is a riff that deserves a great vocal melody to go along with it, but do they have one? Nope, it's as if they have not even looked for it. That is most definitely not how it used to be. On the other hand, nothing could have saved a song like 'Private Hell', the very definition of generic, formulaic grunge where loudness is pretty much the only thing that matters. We've all lived through this a thousand times already — why go on wasting our time?
Personally, I propose that Jerry Cantrell (a) say goodbye to this DuVall guy — no hard feelings, but the two do not really need each other; (b) go back to his solo career and, if possible, forget about things like distortion and volume, because if there are any tunes on here that have given me honest, simple pleasure, it is the bits of acoustic material: 'When The Sun Rose Again' and the title track (with no less than Elton John guest-starring on piano!) are touching melancholic bits in the vein of Jerry's «lighter» tunes on Jar Of Flies. Even the folk-rocker 'Your Decision', plumper and more saturated with instrumentation, packs the right atmosphere into the right container.
This is ground for optimism — Cantrell has not really run out of ideas, he has merely enslaved them under the supervision of the overall concept, namely, that this new band somehow has to live up to its old fame. The day he understands that he is, in fact, not obliged to prove anything, is the day when we will really see a nice true follow-up to the original Alice In Chains legacy. This record, unfortunately, is just a misguided dud. It's heavy all right, but so was Jon Brower Minnoch, and I am afraid the album will have an even shorter lifespan than he did. Thumbs down, except for the acoustic songs and that killer riff from 'Check My Brain'. Steal it, someone!