Album Review : Alice in Chains - Black Gives Way to Blue (2009)
It’s not exactly common knowledge, but Alice in Chains didn’t die after the passing of its frontman Layne Staley. Well, it did. But the band was reborn from its ashes when Jerry Cantrell met William DuVall and reformed the band, three years after Staley’s untimely passing. They released three albums since, starting with Black Gives Way to Blue in 2009. If you don’t know anything about that, don’t beat yourself up. This new iteration of Alice in Chains only resembles the old on a surface level. On Black Gives Way to Blue, the old and the new collide, in an effort to define a new sound.
It kind of works, buta not all the way through.
The first thing that jumps at you when listening to Black Gives Way to Blue is how harmonious it is. The tension between their trademark ghastly vocals and heavy, mid-tempo guitar chords being almost evacuated from Alice in Chain’s new sound, it becomes almost unrecognizable. The opener All Secrets Known is a contemplative declaration of intent, where William DuVall and Jerry Cantrell declare it’s impossible to go back to where it all started both lyrically and by sonically complementing each other. It’s not an exciting song, but it’s a bold statement.
What stands out the most on Black Gives Way to Blue is the choruses. They are catchy, melodic and a throwback to their old days. On their first album Facelift and prior, Alice in Chains had much stronger hair metal and classic rock influences, which are back here in a heavier, more modern take. Songs like Check My Brain, Last of My Kind or Lesson Learned are impossible not to sing out loud after a few listens. Their simple structure and infectious messages make them great examples of what’s great about rock music: the build-ups to these big, tension-releasing moments.
Here’s an example:
I mean, you don’t need a fucking phd in music to appreciate this song. It just savantly builds anticipation up the moment where you can sing: CALIFORNIAAAA, I’M FINE/SOMEBODY CHECK MY BRAIN. It’s simple, accessible and the furthest thing from meaningless. It’s a true blue rock song. The best crafted song on Black Gives Way to Blue, though is (in my opinion) A Looking in View, which has some of the most sophisticated guitar riffs and complicated structure I’ve ever heard the band have, I think. It also has a killer chorus, because one doesn’t prevent the other.
So why the fuck not, right?
The only problem I have with Black Gives Way to Blue is that it has exactly four great songs, two decent ones and the rest falls completely flat. I gave the album over ten spins in two weeks and I couldn’t sign you the melodies of half the songs. To a certain point it’s understandable that a band coming from such a long layoff is musically looking for a new footing, but albums like Dirt or Alice in Chains were so densely packed with hits, releasing unmemorable material becomes somewhat of a sin.
The ballads Your Decision and When the Sun Rose Again are the worse offenders. They sound like outtakes from Jar of Flies. The wildly experimental Acid Bubble also comes off as gimmicky and counterintuitive to all the great, accessible material on the record. It’s like Jerry Cantrell wrote one to satisfy the complaining music geeks. Thought the title song fell flat, too. It’s the mandatory ode to Layne Staley, but No Excuses from Jar of Flies is, twenty-five years later, still way more poignant. This one here felt forced an disingenuous.
So, there you have it. Black Gives Way to Blue has great songs that build off the early Alice in Chains vibe to create a new and exciting sound and material that is completely unmemorable, that sound like boring early 2000’s alternative metal. It feature some of the best and some of the worst Alice in Chains are capable of. The William DuVall era is different and has it own palpable identity, but Black Gives Way to Blue doesn’t quite live up to the monstrous expectations and what’s most frustrating is that they found a way to. They just didn’t fully commit to it.