Alice in Chains’ last album, 2009’s Black Gives Way to Blue, came with plenty of baggage. After the band’s studio hiatus of nearly 14 years, Black shouldered the burdensome moniker of “comeback album,” with loyal listeners—now sporting mortgages and Mazdas rather than ripped jeans and flannel—anticipating the record with that peculiar amalgam of giddiness and trepidation that comes when something precious buried in our youth later gets unearthed in middle age.
More daunting, of course, was the emotional reconciliation of pressing on with new singer-guitarist William DuVall while also paying tribute to late singer Layne Staley. The first words on Black are “Hope, a new beginning,” and the record’s closing line is “Lay down, I’ll remember you,” the lyrical equivalent of singer-guitarist Jerry Cantrell, drummer Sean Kinney, and bassist Mike Inez finally being able to lay flowers on Staley’s grave.
So, it’s no slight to say that The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is just a record. Thankfully, that’s all this album needs to be. There’s no deep sigh of catharsis, Elton John has been sent home, and the feckless Alan Poole Mclard laughably follows in the high-heeled footsteps of the devastatingly attractive Nona Weisbaum. The end product is a record that stakes a claim to old Alice stomping grounds while annexing some unexpected territory along the way.
“There’s some real filth in there,” Cantrell recently told Rolling Stone, and opening tracks “Hollow” and “Pretty Done” quickly re-establish Alice as that metal Baskin-Robbins that churns out endless flavors of harmonizing, hypnotic sludge. On “Stone”, that familiar “Check My Brain” crunch grinds alongside skin-peeling guitar work and a two-man vocal attack, DuVall punctuating Cantrell’s vocals with a “fuck you” snarl.
Upcoming single “Voices”, the record’s best cut, provides that classic moment when Alice forces the listener to rethink what a metal band can do. Rusty fence-wire strumming and disaffected singing suddenly propel into a gorgeous, textured swirl of voices around Cantrell’s foreground vocal of “Everybody listen/ Voices in my head.” It’s that moment when the camera goes through the earhole, and we get to see the volatile chemistry really taking place in someone’s mind.
Wallowing in filth may largely define Alice, but the boys clean up nicely on several of The Devil’s later tracks. The acoustic-based “Scalpel” recalls life’s path and lessons in Cantrell’s clear, plaintive tone before soaring into a signature harmony on the line “Been down that road before/ It’s a lie,” underpinned beautifully by Kinney’s kit work. And maybe it’s not even that the band tidies up so much as that they open up, like driving down a desert highway with the top down on a classic car. Even on cuts like the grimier “Breath on a Window”, with DuVall singing lead, these songs feel like they have space to breathe and expand more than on previous records.
Cantrell predicted that the record’s title track would cause rumblings; it’s difficult to ignore the lines “The Devil put dinosaurs here/ Jesus don’t like a queer.” However, the gripe with this song is not Alice’s commentary on the fatuous and wicked things faith often causes people to believe and do but rather that this slumbering behemoth—unlike Black’s microcosmic “A Looking in View”—feels like an outlier that can’t carry its own weight. Contrarily, the seven-minute “Phantom Limb” never wanes, playing out like a pummeling, desperate episode, with the eerie conclusion, “I’ll just haunt you like a phantom limb.”
The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here revels in being just a record. There’s no comeback, lineup reconfiguration, or memorial to be found here, only reminders of why an album from this band will always be welcomed. After all these years, Alice is still a filthy girl. And we wouldn’t want her any other way.
Essential Tracks: “Voices”, “Scalpel”, and “Phantom Limb”