Thursday, November 2, 2017
Vulgar Display Of Hubris
After album three, Alice In Chains went on a hiatus. Jerry Cantrell released a solo album in 1998 that was essentially an AIC record without Layne Staley. That same year, the sincerely struggling vocalist managed to record two songs with the band. Earmarked for Cantrell's second solo, they wound up instead on 1999's Music Bank box set. A live album and greatest hits collection followed, with no discernible signs of a new studio record.
Cantrell's sophomore effort came out June 2002. In an interview given March of that year, Jerry expressed hopes that the band who made it possible for anyone to give shit one about a Jerry Cantrell record would get it together.
A month later--April 20th--Layne Staley's partially decomposed body was found in his Seattle condo. He'd fallen victim to a deadly speedball, self-administered two weeks before.
In 2005, AIC's surviving members reunited in Seattle for a benefit concert. Various vocalists filled in for the late Staley, including longtime supporter and friend Ann Wilson. Next, a VH-1 concert honoring Heart. Among the fill-ins was Comes With the Fall singer William DuVall, who so impressed the guys, they asked him to stay on the mic for the series of reunion concerts they'd planned for 2006.
Interviews expressed ambivalence towards the idea of recording new music under the Alice In Chains name. Whether their decision to keep the name showed admirable bravery or alarming indecency is up for debate. The band, for their part, acknowledged reluctance among the fanbase while reminding people that no one outside of Layne's family was harder hit by his death than they were, and no two people grieve the same, etc.
Accusations of avarice were inevitable and funny, considering that anyone in this century who releases music with the expectation of earning a living deserves every dollar they don't get. For my part…I expected very little from this reboot.
"All Secrets Known"--Right off: William DuVall's voice is okay, but his projection is sorely lacking. Mad Julian Lennon vibes. (Better than Tim Owens vibes, confessedly.)
Rest of the band whip up a nice swirling red spot. "No going back," hell, they said it.
"Check My Brain"--This big rock radio hit is also far and away the brothel's Employee of the Year. The main riff is an armor-crushing monstrosity, a hearkening back to the best of alt-rock at its commercial peak. The chorus looks and feels like Alice In Chains.
"Last Of My Kind"--Still stuck in the decade prior, and still, I've no beef to cook. The new guy, yeesh. His flourish game leaves much to be desired. Dude makes Aaron Lewis sound like Nick Drake.
"Your Decision"--A lazy massage through a nylon tee. The band, taken as a whole, sound great. Which didn't stun me, it's not as if Layne Staley's death meant Sean Kinney's hand-foot coordination would suddenly go missing. Soul is lost quicker than technique…and impossible to relearn.
"A Looking In View"--This seven-minute stomach drop was the first single. Those patented vocal blends are still here, with a distinct difference: Jerry Cantrell dominates DuVall in the mix. True, the new guy isn't a powerhouse, but he should still get his fair share of the air.
"When the Sun Rises Again"--Mostly acoustic. I need to watch The Seventh Seal and cheer up.
"Acid Bubble"--Another seven minutes? Those picked notes don't pull wool. Ain't no fudge brownie in my hand; just a muddy boot on my foot.
"Lesson Learned"--Was it, Jerry? Was it really?
Mr. Cantrell's relocation to L.A. gave him one great song and a bunch of decent riffs. Introspection without a decent razor leads to sunken eyes and unsightly bumps.
"Take Her Out"--A girl? A dog? A coke mirror?
"Private Hell"--Purgatory defies passionate analysis, explaining why it's mislabeled here.
"Black Gives Way To Blue"--Elton John on the piano.
Elton fucking John.
On the fucking piano.
Elton fucking John on the fucking piano.
When Jerry found out that his band and Elton were recording in the same studio, he was struck by an idea: wouldn't it be amazing if one of the world's most popular piano men could play on the song Jerry wrote in honor of his departed friend? Layne Staley's first-ever concert was Elton John! Jerry sends a tape of the song and a brief note. A week goes by. No word. Then, one of Jerry's "people" informs him that Elton would be interested in a meeting. Turns out, he's a longtime fan of AIC and would love to contribute.
This homage to their evaporated soul could have understandably stretched out. We've already had a number of songs in excess of 300 seconds on the album. "BGWTB" takes only three minutes, though, and is better for it.
The more I listen, the more the circumstances of Staley's death piss me off. Not the cause (how many rock star OD's have been truly unexpected?) but the fact it took two weeks for him to be found. It took a call from to a former manager from his current accountants before anyone thought to check up on a suffering man.
In other words, it took money for someone to give a damn.
I'm not the type who considers the continued existence of Alice Of Chains to be problematic. Word of a new album didn't fill me with such anger that I had to step outside and crush a leaf with my bare tongue. I believe in giving fair shakes. And in all quaking fairness, Black Gives Way To Blue is (barring one exceptional track) a dispiriting slog.