I was only 9 years old when Kurt Cobain died in 1994, much too young to really pay attention to the whirlwind of attention heaped towards ‘grunge’ bands on MTV. As a result, I have only grown to appreciate bands like Alice in Chains, Nirvana, Soundgarden, and their peers in retrospect. Despite the band the fact that they lost one of the best rock voices years ago, Alice in Chains is back from the dead in a BIG way. Their new album Black Gives Way to Blue is out this week, and is an amazing breakthrough for a band that lost its lead singer (and arguably main focal point) when Layne Staley OD’d back in 2002. Remarkably, they found a replacement that does an incredible job channeling Layne’s spirit with his singing, despite looking somewhat like Lenny Kravitz.
When I heard back around 2006 that Alice in Chains was “re-forming” despite the fact that Staley OD’d in 2002, I was skeptical. Staley’s voice, to me, seemed IMPOSSIBLE to imitate correctly. However, the guy they found to take over the singing duties, William DuVall, sounds eerily like Layne. I saw Alice in Chains at Epicenter last month, and I actually got chills when DuVall sang AIC songs such as Man in the Box, Rain When I Die, Rooster, and Would? The similarity between his voice and Layne’s is uncanny.
In most cases when singers die, bands should generally not try to play on with someone else filling in; it’s just not the same. DuVall, though, helps AIC break down that door in grand fashion.
With that said, the new album Black Gives Way to Blue is everything I had hoped it would be. Opening track All Secrets Known is great, a slower tune with sludgy (YES!) guitars and Duvall singing about “a new beginning…time to start living like just before we die”.
Up next is Check My Brain. When that song and A Looking In View hit the Internet a month or so ago, I was floored. CMB has the requisite Jerry Cantrell riffage that is distinctly Alice in Chains, and despite a chorus that sounds a bit too radio-friendly for AIC standards (“California, I’m fine, somebody check my brain, California’s alright, somebody check my brain”), the song still kills. A Looking In View, though, is as close to classic AIC as one could expect at this point, 19 years or so since they debuted with the breakout album Facelift. Clocking in at 7 minutes, it’s a sludgy, ugly, angry beast of a song that could have been written in 1992. DuVall does some amazing vocal work here, and Cantrell’s guitar work is as badass as ever. The song never really lets up with the balance of aggression and the slow brood that helped give AIC such a distinct sound back in the 1990s.
Your Decision is easily one of the album’s finest, with some acoustic strumming by Cantrell and doubled vocals by DuVall. It would have sounded great on the Unplugged album, and is very memorable.
Last of My Kind bears an unfortunate similarity to Rob Zombie’s Dragula at certain parts, which is more than a bit distracting. It’s basically the exact same guitar riff and singing style, but it is not something that is in the entire song. Still, the similarity is there, and it’s too bad, because the rest of the song is pretty good.
Acid Bubble is another kickass 7 minute song that changes structure a few times and is filled with layered dark angry vocals and downtuned guitar work.
The last track and title cut, Black Gives Way to Blue, features Elton John (YES, the guy from the Lion King) on piano and his playing accentuates DuVall’s lyrics and Cantrell’s acoustic guitar beautifully. It’s a haunting song, and ends the album well.
I figured this album would end up having an unfortunate tribute band feel to it, but DuVall manages to somehow sound just like Staley without his vocal work seeming forced. He has a powerful voice that just so happens to sound almost exactly like Staley’s. DuVall impressed the hell out of me with his performance on this album, as to me this is an Alice in Chains album, not “¾ of the band and a new singer”. Yes, Layne is gone, but they have picked up right from where they were before he succumbed to his drug addiction. Black Gives Way to Blue is an incredible effort by DuVall, Cantrell and friends. Hopefully they stick around long enough to make another album, as they still can clearly still write some awesome music. I sincerely hope this album leads to a full-on grunge revival, as I have some flannel I’d sure love to break out of my closet…