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Metal/Prog Metal CD Reviews

Alice In Chains

Black Gives Way to Blue

Review by Julie Knispel

With the death of singer/guitarist Layne Staley in 1992, prospects for new Alice in Chains material seemed bleak indeed.  It had been 6 years since the band’s last activity (their first live show in years, documented on the MTV Unplugged album).  With Jerry Cantrell busy with the beginnings of a solo career and Mike Inez’s activity with Black Label Society, it seemed very unlikely that any new material under the AiC banner would ever see the light of day.  While the band did reunite for a small series of shows a few years later, it seemed likely that drummer Sean Kinney’s comments from 2006 were kind of a final word: “"If we found some other dude, I'd love to move on, write some cool tunes and change the name and go on like that. I don't see continuing as Alice and replacing somebody…”

2009 sees the release of Black Gives Way to Blue, the band’s first studio album in 14 years, and it seems as if the intervening years have done little to dull the band’s intensity and power.  Following in a similar kind of format to the band’s 1995 eponymous album, Black Gives Way to Blue covers the entire gamut of the band’s styles…acoustic, metallic, somber, energetic.  Everything that made Alice in Chains perhaps the most diverse of Seattle bands is on display here in a single release.  New singer William DuVall fits in incredibly well, and his harmonies with Jerry Cantrell come eerily close to matching those of Cantrell and Staley. 

From  opening note to closing fade, Black Gives Way to Blue shows Alice in Chains still has a lot to share musically.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2009  Volume 6 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
All Secrets Known
All Secrets Known: The first AiC album in 14 years opens with what has to be a massive statement of intent; the band, now led by William DuVall, has to prove that they are still the band that released the seminal Facelift, Dirt and eponymous albums. Expectations are high, and this song more than measures up, with Cantrell/DuVall vocal harmonies over an appropriately sludgy mid-tempo groove, complete with intertwining, interleaving guitar lines and musical sections that take elements from throughout the band's career without sound derivative in any way. Cantrell's soloing has never sounded more incisive, and for a band with so much to lose, "All Secrets Known" shows a band as hungry as ever, and fighting the ghosts of the past and expectations...and winning.
Check My Brain
Black Gives Way to Blue continues on with "Check My Head," a song that might have been lifted wholesale from the Facelift sessions in sound and style and plopped down here. The fact that it still has so much freshness is a testament to the timelessness of Cantrell's timeless writing. There's almost a warped sensibility to the track's opening riffs. A relatively short 3:58, there's little room for extended expansive instrumental breaks, and the track ends up lean, mean, and snarling.
Last of My Kind

“Last of my Kind” is one of two tracks co-written with new singer William DuVall, and as such offers a bit of a pointer toward what future Alice in Chains releases may move toward.  DuVall’s vocals sound frighteningly like Layne’s.  The song offers up a few different riffs, pieced together and flowing smoothly.  The band handles the changes with the skill that comes from years of playing together.

Your Decision

The first acoustic song on the release, this one deals with surviving, dealing with pain and choosing to continue on rather than giving in.  One wonders if perhaps there are some lingering hard feelings over Layne’s choices; while I am sure that the band considered Staleya brother, it’s easy to feel anger because of the choices that were made.  The lyrics are poignant, the delivery earnest and direct, and the song perfectly arranged and mixed.  Cantrell’s guitar playing fits in perfectly, singing and crying and matching the emotional lyrics.

A Looking in View

This was the first advance single from the album to be released to radio and video, and if there was any question about the band still having it, those doubts should have been washed away less than 30 seconds into this massive track.  The riffs are huge and monstrous, with Cantrell and Inez locking in so tightly that their playing sounds like a single instrument never before heard.  Cantrell and DuVall harmonize as if they have been singing together for decades.  Combined, all these elements create an unstoppable piece of music that easily matches the best the band has created.

When the Sun Rose Again

“When the Sun Rose Again” gives listeners a bit of a respite after the 7 minutes of grinding metal that preceded it.  An acoustic based piece more along the lines of the band’s Sap EP, this track is incredibly stripped back and basic, showing the group in more completely ‘unplugged’ mode.  I keep waiting to hear Ann Wilson, or Mark Arm, or Chris Cornell joining in…

Acid Bubble

Slow, churning rhythms and harmony vocals are the defining characteristics of this piece, a song that fits the Dirt mode of play.  Another longer track, the main vocal sections ebb and flow, while choruses are choppier and angular.

Lesson Learned

“Lesson Learned” is a pleasant enough track, with a solid mid-tempo beat and guitars that nearly chime without lessening the heaviness.  I have to admit that this track hasn’t hit me as heavily as other pieces on the album, but I’d also not call it a filler track.  On an album with pieces like “A Looking In View” and “All Secrets Known,” “Lessons Learned” just doesn’t quite reach the same heights.

Take Her Out

“Take Her Out,” on the other hand, impresses from the beginning, with a pulsing beat that is driven by Mike Inez’s bass playing.  The thick, churning guitars and bass are locked into a simple martial beat courtesy of Sean Kinney, and Cantrell’s solos are fluid and impressive.

Private Hell

As the album moves toward closure, Alice in Chains begins to ramp up the intensity emotionally.  “Private Hell” features a gloriously chiming guitar line, wonderful harmony vocals, and a melody that is immediately memorable and intense.  “Private Hell” is one of the definite highlights on this release, and shows without question that Alice in Chains is not only back, but ready to carry on for years to come.

Black Gives Way to Blue
The album’s title track closes out the release with piano courtesy of guest Elton John, who was asked directly by the band to contribute.  This song speaks to the memory of Layne Staley, with incredibly personal lyrics that hit very close to home.  The main melody reminds me of the Cure a little bit, yet the song is entirely an AiC piece from open to close.  While this is a quieter piece by far than anything else the band has released, it is a piece well worthy of the AiC name.
 
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