By Bill Adams
How does one pick up the pieces and try to put them back together into something that resembles a livable situation after tragedy strikes? Such is the question every band has to ask itself when they find themselves short a member but, particularly when that band loses its voice, it can be a devastating blow because it instantly throws any future that the band members left behind might have into question because it’s impossible not to notice the difference in any future recordings they might make. It’s even more noticeable (and makes the band’s future even more questionable) in a case like that of Alice In Chains because because that voice as genuinely one-of-a-kind and at the center of the band’s identity; when singer Layne Staley died in 2002, the loss left a mammoth void in the fabric of any possible work that the band might release because, while co-singer/guitarist Jerry Cantrell was the rock brains and balls of the songwriting duo, Staley was the tormented heart as well as the main well of empathy and the emotional lynchpin of Alice In Chains. Because of that, the overwhelming sense among fans upon hearing about the singer’s death was (unlike the disgusting behavior that surrounded Kurt Cobain’s suicide) one of pathos; the singer’s passing was called the most methodical, prolonged and painful suicide on record, but most just felt a wrench in the pit of their stomachs at the news and their hearts immediately went out to the survivors. Even the music media – notorious for enjoying the rape of a good corpse – treated Staley’s death with a delicacy and tenderness almost never before not often (if ever) seen.
…And so, for seven years, Alice In Chains called it quits (at least from recording) and everyone understood – who would expect them to continue? Who could? There was the hope, but no one was pushing them – if AIC came back, they’d have to do it in their own time.
Were the surviving bandmembers aware of this? Damn straight they were – Cantrell explains where he, drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Inez are sitting right now most bluntly at the opening of “All Secrets Known” – the lead-off track from Black Gives Way To Blue, Alice In Chains first album of new material in fifteen years when he sings:
A new beginning
Time to start living
Like just before we died
With those words, the meaning of the title ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’ snaps into focus. The pall cast by Layne Staley’s death hasn’t lifted from the minds of the band members, but the healing has begun on this record and the injury to the the group once perceived to be mortal has faded to resigned acceptance, a discovery of the will to carry on and a day-glow bruise.
That does not mean, however, that Alice In Chains isn’t haunted by Layne Staley’s ghost – in fact, it would be difficult to read into the lyrics of any one of the eleven tracks on Black Gives Way To Blue and not find his apparition lurking in eleven darkened corners. The ghost is the muse on BGWTB; with Cantrell solely manning most of the songwriting duties, the torment of addiction and the maddening isolation of it that once characterized Alice In Chains’ songbook (or at least that portion belonging to Staley) has been replaced as Cantrell turns the focus of songs including “Last Of My Kind,” “Your Decision,” “Lesson Learned” and “Private Hell” inward; the perspective shifts to Staley, his obvious absence and the ramifications thereof with a different sort of gut-wrenching result that still hits listeners, but in a different, more universally relatable place than those songs on previous albums did.
To put more flesh on that connective tissue, great care seems to have been taken by Cantrell & co. to draw a hard line connecting the AIC of old with that of Black Gives Way To Blue. “Your Decision,” for example, uses a very similar chord progression to “Brother” while “A Looking In View” could easily fit into a mixtape that leans heavily on material from Dirt and “When The Sun Rose Again” hits vibes that Alice In Chains has avoided since they recorded “Am I Inside.” In each case, the band does seem to try and adhere as closely as possible to the sounds – or extensions of them – that they first developed in their glory days with only the slightest amount of noticeable growth registered here. That’s not necessarily a bad thing however as, after fifteen years, if the band appeared all-new and all-different, whatever they did would also be all-abhorrent.
…And, on that line of thought, the man tapped to fill Layne Staley’s shoes should draw mention. William DuVall had his work cut out for him walking in as the Johnny-come-lately on a legacy and, to his credit, he does an admirable job; even if he is still trying to find his legs AND producer Nick Raskulinecz seems to have gone out of his way to keep the bright lights off the new blood. Most of the dynamic vocal turns registered on Black Gives Way To Blue are Cantrell’s (some of the best are “Lesson Learned,” “Acid Bubble,” “All Secrets Known”), but DuVall does get a few choice licks in on “Check My Brain,” “Last Of My Kind”and “A Looking In View.” Those songs where he does take the helm are perfectly respectable starting points for an untested singer, and they do leave the possibility that some fantastic turns are possible in the future.
That said and speaking as a fan, Black Gives Way To Blue seems destined to be met with mixed feelings. On one hand, the album’s very existence is bittersweet but, on the other, it is a decent offering that handily kicks the rust of the band’s belts and doesn’t try to act like the past never happened. The material is decent – even if certainly not Alice In Chains’ best – and an able successor to (but not a replacement for – not yet) to the band’s legacy, but it is step one. Time will tell if they’re able to re-scale the mountain, but that Black Gives Way To Blue exists illustrates that Alice In Chains is looking up again and thinking about it.