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Alice in Chains - 'Black Gives Way to Blue' Review

Alice in Chains Return From the Grave Sounding Better Than Ever

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Alice in Chains - 'Black Gives Way to Blue'

Photo courtesy Virgin/EMI.
Alice in Chains’ spectacular comeback album, Black Gives Way to Blue, is one of the few instances when a band picks up where it left off and manages to produce an intensity and focus that rivals its heyday. On their first album in almost 15 years – and first since the death of lead singer Layne Staley – Alice in Chains pull off the nifty trick of both honoring their past and forging ahead with real confidence. Old fans should be heartened by the group’s sustained vitality, but Black Gives Way to Blue is a triumph on its own terms as well.

A Lead Singer Gone, but the Band's Heart Remains

While Staley was the group’s frontman during their early-‘90s run, the bulk of the songwriting came from guitarist (and sometimes vocalist) Jerry Cantrell. While Staley’s death certainly was tragic, its impact was not as crushing to his band as, say, Kurt Cobain’s was to Nirvana, effectively ending that group’s career. With new singer William DuVall’s vocals blending with Cantrell’s on several tracks, Staley’s absence isn’t as profoundly felt as one might have expected. (Truth be told, hearing Cantrell’s melodic background vocals on Black Gives Way to Blue is to be reminded just how much his pipes contributed to the band’s sound during the height of grunge.) So as opposed to a lot of situations when a band has to pick up the pieces after the death of a singer, Black Gives Way to Blue sounds like a natural progression of what Alice in Chains did on groundbreaking records such as Dirt.

Despair Doing Battle With Hope

At the same time, though, Alice in Chains are keenly aware of their own sad history. The album’s opening track, the rumbling “All Secrets Known,” starts with the lines “A new beginning/Time to start living” before advising, “There’s no going back.” The rest of Black Gives Way to Blue follows that advice – this is a dark record about trying to pull yourself out of the chaos and pain of the past. Granted, Alice in Chains were never a sunny, friendly band even in the ‘90s, but the clenched-fist angst of Black Gives Way to Blue is considerably bleak. And yet, the album’s surging, determined songs feel downright inspiring, especially on tracks like “Check My Brain” and “A Looking in View” in which Cantrell and DuVall’s guitars fight and claw to escape the lyrics’ jet-black despair. Without overtly referencing Staley’s drug addiction and fatal overdose, Black Gives Way to Blue sounds like a survivor’s tale, couching in universal terms how people move on after tragedy strikes. And as gloomy as this album can be, you walk away from the experience oddly uplifted, although thankfully Alice in Chains never resort to the kind of feel-good sentimentality that lesser bands would have attempted. Consequently, Black Gives Way to Blue ends up being the group’s darkest and brightest album simultaneously.

Welcome Back, Guys

As per norm with an Alice in Chains record, Black Gives Way to Blue is a perfect mixture of hard-driving rock songs and super-moody mid-tempo tunes. “Check My Brain” may be one of the group’s skuzziest riffs ever, while “Lesson Learned” rides a catchy vocal hook through layers of grunge guitars. Meanwhile, “Your Decision” is in keeping with AIC’s Jar of Flies-era ballads that are thick with sorrow and intricate guitar work. As for the much-discussed collaboration with Elton John on the title track, it too fits into the album’s overall mood of inspired musicianship and somber subject matter, enhanced by John’s understated but eloquent piano-playing. “I don’t want to feel no more,” Cantrell sings on that track, which is an ode to Staley. “It’s easier to keep falling.” But the genius of Black Gives Way to Blue is that Alice in Chains don’t take him at his word. Instead, this is an album where a defunct band picked themselves up and let it bleed all over their songs. Staley may be gone forever, but it’s absolutely great to have the rest of his old cohorts back.

'Black Gives Way to Blue' – Best Tracks:

“Check My Brain” (Purchase/Download)
“All Secrets Known” (Purchase/Download)
“Your Decision” (Purchase/Download)
“Black Gives Way to Blue” (Purchase/Download)
“A Looking in View” (Purchase/Download)

Release date – September 29, 2009
Virgin/EMI Records

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