As a music reviewer I try to defer to the Occam’s Razor practice, that your first instinct is usually the correct one, and if you have to sit with a record too long in order to like it, you may not be telling the unfettered truth. So it was that my review of the first of Alice In Chains revival, Black Gives Way To Blue, was more critical than it deserved. I still stand by some of my statements: William DuVall was underutilized; the mastering was ridiculously clipped, compressed and over-loud; and having Elton John play on the title track provided little more than having a piano on the track, rather than having Elton be a real presence. In spite of all these misgivings, I kept coming back to the album, mostly because the songs were quite good. It was also a great thing to hear this powerhouse band play songs that weren’t so fixated on smack — an unfortunate crutch when you had Layne Staley as your singer, a talented figure who will sadly always be equated with his addiction versus his music.
So by the time The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here was announced, I was a lot more enthusiastic than my previous album review might portend. Having heard it in full, unfortunately, I once again have mixed feelings. Let me dispense with the negatives first being, once again, fans of loud rock also appreciate dynamics and this CD’s mastering has crushed highs and lows into an iPod-ready brick of sound. Younger consumers may not be bothered by this, but there is a whole other market out there that wishes the highs and lows weren’t being extruded equally out the speakers like Play-Doh. The other drawback to the record is that the predominant rhythm and tempo capitalizes on the same stoner-stomp of the first single “Stone.” In bite-sizes one can appreciate that Cantrell, Inez, Kinney and, yes, DuVall still have the power to slam the competition to the mat, but there is a whole other side to Alice In Chains that gets nearly neglected on The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here.
Yet I believe that, like the previous album, I’m going to gradually appreciate this release more and more and so I am hesitant to say something so stupidly heavy-handed like, “Nearly every song sounds like they’re trying to cover Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’ (which is patently false) or “Rooster” (which may be more apt)”. Yet there is that other side I mentioned; the one with a pop/hard rock music attitude that emerged with tracks like “No Excuses” or even “Check My Brain.” You get that in small doses on the new CD with the most prominent example being “Voices,” a track that, if anyone at Capitol Records is left with an ear for rock music marketing, should be released immediately as a single. “Scalpel” also moves the BPM up a little, and the closing “Choke” works a tempo shift into itself.
DuVall is integrated fully as a co-singer alongside Jerry Cantrell and the vocal harmonies, one of AIC’s most unique aspects, really shine here. With vocal sometimes triple-tracked, the attack is immediate and satisfying. And from the production side, despite my mastering complaints, Nick Raskulinecz (yes, I had to consult the back of the CD to make sure I spelled it right) has fast become the producer-of-choice for rock. He knows what a rock fan wants to hear and is able to provide it without getting in the way too much. His signature style is aggressive, but you never get the tell-tale tricks that wind up hanging off of specific producers’ work.
So there is conflict here. I like The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here and believe I will grow to like it more over the upcoming months, but the initial impression I am left with is this: of the many sides Alice In Chains is capable of, they have chosen to highlight only one here, and that feels like a short-changing. Catch up with me in the fall and we’ll see if my position has shifted. In the meantime, let’s say that this album will probably be a grower, but my initial impression must remain that AIC’s fixation with being super-heavy has denied them the opportunity to show off all they are capable of.