When a band soldiers on with new personnel after a loss — such as, say, the overdose death of original Alice in Chains lead singer Layne Staley — the preeminent task is always to try and reassure the audience that, yes, this is the same band you knew before, yet this has to be accomplished in a subtle manner. By plopping in a sound-alike replacement, you risk losing your credibility and, worse, you come off as insensitive to the band’s legacy. On the other hand, if you go too far in the opposite direction, you alienate your original fanbase.
The fact that Black Gives Way to Blue, the album by the mostly reunited Alice in Chains, deftly straddles the two is quite an achievement. New singer William DuVall fits into Staley’s timbre, but he sounds unique enough to avoid being called a clone. The new songs seize upon everything that AiC had come to represent musically, so it’s a comfortable transition in that respect, too. Truth be told, however, that’s all that can be considered comfortable, and so much the better for that. I have never walked away from an AiC recording wanting to pick wildflowers and draw smiley suns and rainbows, and Black Gives Way to Blue continues that streak. From the opening confessional, “All Secrets Known,” to songs like “Acid Bubble” and “Private Hell,” you can be assured a heavy time in the offing.
I can’t say the album is a total triumph, though; there are some glaring instances of calculation. First off, DuVall isn’t given a lot of spotlight time, mostly trading harmonies with guitarist/singer Jerry Cantrell through the recording. He takes the reins on “Last of My Kind” and proves himself worthy of inclusion, but if he wasn’t worthy why did he get the job? It’s a bit of a bet hedge there, as is the realization Cantrell wrote most of the album himself, leading the skeptic to wonder if this is so much a return as it is the natural progression of Cantrell’s solo career. Another head-scratcher is Elton John’s piano on the touching closer, the album’s title track. When I heard that Sir Elton was contributing, my thoughts were, “This will either be amazing or a complete embarrassment.” It’s actually neither, as there is nothing in the performance unique to Elton. It didn’t need to be him on the track — it was little more than stunt casting, another bet hedge.
The third strike, but really only a half strike, is that this CD probably has hit new loudness thresholds in the volume wars. It is beyond jarring, and I found myself turning the car stereo down to half the usual volume level just to listen at all. The vinyl version (conveniently packaged with a CD inside) is by far the better way to go. Because of vinyl’s limitations, gratefully so, the master has to be level-dropped to accommodate, and the experience is so much easier to take. If any vinyl apologists are looking for new weapons with which to defend themselves, this surely is a good one.
If you are an Alice in Chains fan, you’ll be pleased that the group has come together again with a familiar, but not entirely duplicated, piece of music. You won’t come away from the album filled with love for all mankind, but coming from the band that told us, “They’ve come to snuff the rooster,” would you want it any other way?