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Alice In Chains at their Doomy best - 95%

kellyosbournesdick, July 7th, 2009

‘90’s was the greatest period for Metal music – hands down. Anyone who thinks that ‘80’s was the best time is out of his mind. The experimentation the metal music has gone through in the extreme-underground paved the way to what we are listening today as semi-mainstream Metal; from Mastodon and Opeth to Cradle Of Filth and so on.

And there wouldn’t be anything better than what grunge did to mainstream metal music, which was drowning in pretentiousness, posturing and by-the-numbers pop tendencies by the end of ‘80’s. Instead, by the beginning of ‘90’s, we had bands like Soundgarden and Alice In Chains, who gloriously gave back the throne of metal back to its originator: Black Sabbath. Just take a listen to the first couple of albums from either of these bands and you’ll face the fact that both of these bands based their music on the heavier-than-earth riffing and grooves of Sabbath. Now take Poison and Motley Crue on one hand and Sabbath on the other one and say which one’s more “metal”…

Starting out as a hair metal band, Alice In Chains quickly combined their music with Sabbath grooves (thanks to guitar-hero Jerry Cantrell) and beautiful vocal lines and harmonies (thanks to frontman Layne Staley) in debut “Facelift”, which gave us both heavy and catchy songs like ‘Man In The Box’, ‘We Die Young’, ‘Sea Of Sorrow’ and numerous others. This was the album that inspired Metallica to record ‘Black Album’, so it’s one of the most important cornerstones in Metal music. And hell, it’s only a debut!

One would expect the band to play safe and continue releasing more of the same, but instead came “Dirt”, probably the darkest album to go platinum. Gone were the hair metal influences completely, successfully replaced by even more Sabbath grooves and doom-laden atmospheres. And also, the slight glimpse of hope present on the debut was also gone thanks to Layne Staley’s increasing heroin addiction and the downward spiral into depression. The success came through melodic anthems like ‘Would?’ or ‘Them Bones’, but the core of the album laid in the slow, tortured songs like ‘Dirt’, ‘Junkhead’ or ‘Rain When I Die’.

The album catapulted the band into stardom, but the vocalist Staley’s habits got worse and worse, paling his presence in the band more and more. The last studio album recorded by him, “Alice In Chains”, debuted on no. 1 on billboards thanks to the success of the previous album, but was a rather unfocused effort, albeit being the darkest album on the band’s discography.

Then came the inconsistent period for the band, which saw Jerry Cantrell taking over control, releasing a solo album with AIC members (minus Staley), and Staley spiralling further down depression and drug usage. By the time Cantrell was recording his second solo album, double-CD masterwork “Degredation Trip” (originally intented to be recorded as an AIC album), he was not in good terms with Staley at all, bashing him out in various songs of the mentioned album. Yet Staley passed away from a drug overdose which made Cantrell to dedicate the album to his former bandmate – in an honest way or not.

2006 saw the remaining members of AIC reunite for benefit gigs, then for a tour, with new vocalist William Duvall, who worked with Jerry Cantrell on his solo tours. Then we had the band announcing that they were going to record under Alice In Chains name.

Now… It is open to debate whether this version of Alice In Chains is a true and honest continuation of the band, or it’s a mere continuation of Jerry Cantrell’s solo career under Alice In Chains title in order to sell more albums. Staley is extremely hard to replace, even irreplaceable, because of the way he was: a one of a kind tortured artist pictured in his downward spiral to death. Cantrell was the musical brain of AIC, yet Staley was the soul. In any case, we will never hear something like “Dirt” again. Something musically the same can be released maybe, yes, but without that soul. Which is perfectly normal, so I was not holding my expectations there, but was rather expecting to hear a good Jerry Cantrell-led dark, Groove metal record from this new carnation of AIC.

‘A Looking In View’, which was partly premiered on the band’s webisodes a few months ago, is the first single off “Black Gives Way To Blue”, the new Alice In Chains record. The track starts off with heavy, crushing riffs, which a tremolo-effected weird guitar drone flies over, and gives way to some awesome doom metal riffing. The vocal harmonies are superb, but here new singer Duvall doubles Cantrell instead of the other way around, which makes us understand that in this incarnation of AIC, there’s not a single frontman any longer like the Staley days. Duvall’s solo vocal spots resemble Staley from ‘Junkhead’. The chorus of the track is amazing and Cantrell at its best, combining melodic and groovy riffing at the same time with beautiful vocal harmonies over the top of it. The 7-minute song, after repeating the same canvas, turns its direction to groovy riffing reminding of ‘Rain When I Die’, with Duvall’s Chris Cornell-like wails shining on top.

Overall, this is a great, great song presenting AIC at their doomy best, superbly arranged and performed, complete with deep, intelligent lyrics by Cantrell. It is a direct continuation of “Degredation Trip” album, or in other words, the last 2 AIC songs recorded with Staley, ‘Get Born Again’ and ‘Died’: heavier and more compact, palm muted riffing with melodic, emotional vocal lines. This is obviously the route AIC would take if they had continued with Staley, so musically this is very much AIC, as was “Degredation Trip”, but without Staley’s one of a kind presence, which already was, more or less, absent from their last studio album.