by Paul Stephenson
I remember hearing about the death of Layne Staley, one of the most gifted and unique voices of his generation, and being poll-axed. It came on FA cup final day, and my whole house went into a stoned mourning, playing old VHS collections of every live gig and video for hours, barely speaking to each other. It seemed so inevitable and yet so tragic, another example of the needle and the damage done.
But it also robbed the music world of one of its most iconic and interesting bands. One of the true grunge pioneers (indeed they went platinum a good year before Nirvana) their sound was heavy and melodic, melancholy and yet strangely uplifting.
Now, they are back, replete with new singer, William DuVall, and a new album, and from opener ‘All Secrets Known’ its clear that this is an album with a preoccupation with Layne’s death. It is also clear that the band hasn’t lost their touch, its wistful guitars and downbeat vocal harmonies working just as well as they ever did. DuVall sings in a similar registry to Staley, but never sounds as though he is imitating him, and his voice works effortlessly with Jerry Cantrell’s to create the rich harmonies that made AIC stand out in the first place.
By the time second song ‘Check My Brain’ kicks in, it’s also clear that Cantrell’s riff writing abilities haven’t diminished with time, its stomping chorus riff easily showing the likes of Audioslave and Velvet Revolver how it should be done. ‘Last Of My Kind’ replicates this chugging stomp with an epic chorus line. When DuVall sings ‘I’m the last of my kind, still standing’ he’s not lying, there is simply nobody out there making music like this any more. Despite reams of copycat bands in the intervening years, nobody does it quite like Alice.
‘Your Decision’ takes things down a notch and reminds you just how good Cantrell is with melody, before first single ‘A Looking In View’ returns to pummell the listener with one of the darkest and heaviest ‘chug’ riffs not to have been written by Slayer. The trick to a good AIC song is to pit the gloom of its verses against a big epic chorus, and every song here does that with aplomb.
Every song here is of a high enough quality to sit alongside their back catalogue, and that’s about the highest complement I can give. By the time the final title track rolls around, replete with cameo from Sir Elton John on piano, you’re left with the unquestionable reason why Alice In Chains are back. Because there’s simply nobody out there who can touch them when they are at full stride, so why leave that sort of chemistry and talent up on the shelf?
If there were any complaints to be had, it would be to say that it all feels a little bit safe by Alice’s standards. Having heard what DuVall is capable live, it would be nice if he occasionally stepped out from the harmonies and had something to do on his own merit. By focusing so hard on the harmonies the whole thing sounds a little secure.
But this is an album all about putting demons to rest (the lyrics to ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’ are beautiful and poignant, and a fitting tribute to their fallen comrade) so here’s hoping that they can move on from Layne’s death and continue for many years to come. On this evidence, they can quite easily reclaim their mantle as one of the greatest rock bands of all time.