Alice in Chains was responsible for some of the most eclectic heavy rock of the 90s, fusing together unlikely metal and vocal elements into a small but influential catalog that has aged better than the work of most of its grunge contemporaries. The visceral desperation of “Would?”, the jangly sublimity of “No Excuses”, and the slurring sludge of “Again” sound as vibrant and innovative today as when these songs dominated radio waves more than a decade ago. But timeless as the band’s sound may be, diehard Alice fans can assure you that time has indeed passed. Following the tragic death of lead singer Layne Staley in 2002, it looked as though Alice, which had long been on hiatus, was truly over now. In 2006, the band surprisingly reformed as a regular touring act, with Comes With The Fall vocalist/guitarist William DuVall taking over lead singing duties. Despite the positive response the band received while traveling the globe, there remained doubt that Alice in Chains would ever make another studio record. Today that doubt can officially be laid to rest. After 14 torturous years of waiting, the melodic metal gods who wear their hearts and demons on their sleeves return with Black Gives Way to Blue, 11 songs that will remind listeners of why Alice was and is so vital to the hard rock scene.
Black Gives Way to Blue, in typical Alice fashion, has a little bit of everything on it. “A Looking In View”, which serves as a microcosm of sorts for the album, grinds and churns through an epic seven-minute journey that methodically pummels the listener into submission. DuVall leads the charge on “Last of My Kind” with an aggressive “fuck you” vocal style that’ll make even the new singer’s biggest skeptics bang their heads. “Your Decision” builds around a gorgeous, acoustic guitar part and features guitarist Jerry Cantrell on lead vocals for what might be the album’s best track. There just seems to be no shortage of ways for Alice in Chains to floor listeners. This band is so diverse musically and vocally that they might be metal’s answer to The Band.
There wasn’t much question going into this record about bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney being able to hold up their ends of the deal. The genuine concern was about the type of chemistry that would exist in the studio between DuVall and Cantrell on Alice’s trademark harmonies. There needn’t have been any worries. The two sound like they’ve been making records and singing together all of their lives. Classic Alice harmonies perfectly complement the driving guitars on solid rockers like “Lesson Learned” and “Take Her Out”, while DuVall and Cantrell’s voices add lushness and depth to the more delicate “When the Sun Rose Again”, making it sound like something that could have fit in nicely on Sap.
Listening to Black Gives Way to Blue really is a rollercoaster-like experience both musically and emotionally, meaning that, even within songs, you really never know where the band will take you next or how that sudden drop, turn, or twist will affect you. Does anyone out there write a song or play a riff quite like Jerry Cantrell? He has an uncanny ability to hit the listener on multiple levels. A track like “Private Hell” feels like a tortured soul bearing itself to the world, and yet the sound is so bright and bold at times. (Think “Down in a Hole”.) When this record is really working, that’s how it strikes the ear: juxtaposed sounds of absolute pain and utter beauty. Many tracks warrant repeated listens before they can be fully appreciated. There’s just a lot going on.
It’s no secret that the recording of Black Gives Way to Blue was an intensely emotional and cathartic experience for the band. Particularly difficult was reconciling the desire to go on making music together with the harsh reality that a dear friend, Staley, couldn’t be part of that experience. Lyrically, the album tackles the band members’ struggles with moving beyond unresolved grief and rediscovering what they love doing together: making music. The first lines of the album’s opening song, the hypnotically rocking “All Secrets Known”, make Alice’s intentions clear: “Hope, a new beginning/Time, time to start living/Like just before we die.” The record ends on a similar note with the album’s title track, a beautiful and plaintive tribute to Staley that features Cantrell on lead vocals and Elton John on piano. In interviews, the band has talked about how difficult this song was to record due to each member, even DuVall, being so emotionally invested in its meaning. Cantrell sings, “Tomorrow is haunted by your ghost/Lay down, black gives way to blue/Lay down, I’ll remember you.” It’s a fitting end to the band’s first record without Staley, and you can expect fans to break out the lighters at concerts for this tune.
Black Gives Way to Blue isn’t quite on par with classics like Dirt and Jar of Flies. But Alice isn’t resting on past glories either. While some of the recognizable harmonies and sludge from its heyday are present, the band is creatively moving forward from where Cantrell left off with his solo opus, Degradation Trip. So, now that black has finally given way to blue, all that remains to be seen is what blue will give way to. Hopefully fans won’t have to wait another 14 years to find out.
Either way, you should own this album. No Excuses.