Matson on Music
Is there any reason to listen to the new Alice in Chains album, "Black Gives Way to Blue"?
Posted by Andrew Matson
Well, Elton John is on it. And, you know, what if it's car-crash awful? I mean, look at that CD packaging art.
Sir Elton Hercules John does play piano on "Black Gives Way to Blue," but the title track from Alice in Chains' new album is no curveball.
The power ballad sounds a lot like something that would've been on one of Guns N' Roses' "Use Your Illusion" albums, and a lot like old Alice in Chains, the metal-est of Seattle's grunge-explosion bands next to Soundgarden. It's overblown hard-life dirt-rock, and recalls the danger-drama side of radio rock in 1991.
A lot of people have been emailing me about the album, most saying something like, "It's different, but it's good."
To those people, I say no, the album is not different. Are you kidding me? Out of all the songs on "Black Gives Way to Blue," the Elton John one sounds least like Alice in Chains—with the exception of "Last of My Kind," which sounds, sadly, like Rob Zombie—and it still sounds a lot like Alice in Chains. The rest of the album sounds exactly like Alice in Chains.
The new Chains is all wailing vocal harmonies and gothic cathedral Guitar Center Marshall stack drop-D riffs and spider venom o-face solos. Same as the old Chains. If you took away some of the production value on "Black Gives Way to Blue," which is high and lends expensive-sounding heft (and also makes every song sound like it could play over the credits to Spider Man 3), nobody would be able to tell the album came out today and not in the '90s.
"Acid Rubble," for example, is positively classical in it's Chainsianness. Drowning in electric guitar sludge—which there can never be enough of, so far as main Chainsman Jerry Cantrell is concerned—it snarls along until, in an old Alice in Chains trick, just when you thought the guitar could get no bigger, a whole new wave hits and an absurd echelon of badassness is established.
"Check my Brain" puts some swagger in the sludge and takes a Tacoma verse to an L.A. chorus. It's a strip club song, something to sin to. The bridge is chords that "don't go together," which is an extremely '90s touch.
Layne Staley, screaming heart of Alice in Chains, has been dead for seven years, and listening to "Black Gives Way to Blue," one zeroes in on the vocals, trying to notice his absence. It's felt.
But the new guy, William DuVall, does alright. In the old days, Stayley and Cantrell had a particular banshee-magic when they sang together together, a way of close-harmonizing that made them something like Simon & Grungefunkel. DuVall and Stayley pull it off, too, because DuVall is a good harmonizer and Cantrell still sounds like Cantrell. On "All Secrets Known," he yarls "fingers" into "fingerrrrrrrraaaaaaughhhhhzzzzzzz." We are, however, without Stayley's occasional blasts of throat-shred pain-screams. DuVall has no star power.
The band deserves credit for sticking to its guns. It is, after all, not the '90s anymore, and, as a friend pointed out while we were listening to "Black Gives Way to Blue," Alice in Chains might have felt pressure to try something new. Thankfully, there are no Duran Duran-style hiphop interpolations. "Black Gives Way to Blue" is Alice in Chains immemorial.
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