Well, we’re all being spoilt rotten right now, eh? Black Sabbath, Queens of the Stone Age and now Alice in Chains, all crawling out of their musty old attics, all at the same time, all to flog us addenda to their creaking legacies. We should be bloody grateful, right? All we need now is for Soundgarden to drag the festering corpse of their ruined career over to our shores to plug a cretinous return and my childhood will be utterly destro–oh. But fair is fair, perhaps one of these sets of washed up old has-beens can do something besides piss into the face of their arthritic, balding and middle-aged spreading fanbases. Right?
I’ve been here before. If you look back on the early days of these hallowed halls, you’ll find somewhere a gibbering paean to Alice in Chains’ previous effort, Black Gives Way To Blue, which now reads like I wanted something to be true so badly I’d sacrifice my own cognitive powers to make it so. Black wasn’t a bad album, per se, but then neither was it worthy to stand with the staggering potency of the band’s previous output. If you are a fan, be honest with yourself. When was the last time you listened to it? When you reach for Alice now, do you go for Black, or do you get Dirt, or Jar of Flies, or the self-titled album?
Don’t you lie to me now.
There was something just a bit off about Black, once the initial enthusiasm waned, like the chemistry just wasn’t quite correct. Perhaps it was too much to expect something revolutionary from a band staggering to find their feet after the loss of a talismanic frontman, but you’d expect better than average. Disappointment was probably to be expected, which is hardly the band’s fault. None of that makes the record any better, though.
And now we have this, the bewilderingly-titled follow up.
Right off the bat it has a rubbish cover, a rubbish title, and Layne Staley is no more alive than he was four years ago, so the omens aren’t great. But while still nowhere near as enticing as the band’s historical output, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is at least seven per cent more interesting than its predecessor. And that’s a money-back guarantee, if not exactly a glowing endorsement.
The song writing is marginally stronger for one thing, and the ‘new boy’ Billy DuVall now feels like an integral part of the set-up, rather than the bloke they brought in to replace Layne. His vocal work here is much more entwined with that of silken haired riff-peddler Jerry Cantrell, and there’s some nice vocal hooks scattered moodily about the place. So that’s the good stuff. But that’s as much good stuff as there is to be found, because while a slight improvement on its predecessor, this album is sadly nowhere near interesting enough.
Try as they might, Alice just can’t recapture that old magic. The spectre of just how good they once were is always lurking around, stinking up the place like a poopy baby in a crack house, ruining everyone’s buzz. Part of it is the production, all flattened and compressed and pro-tooled into submission until there is nothing even remotely resembling a rough edge—forgetting of course it was the rough, hangnail edges of Alice that caught our attention in the first place. Remember the first time you hit play on Dirt and you thought that you’d just been punched in the ear by the first jagged, sawing notes of Them Bones? Well, you won’t find any of that here. The riffs aren’t bad, but they lack anything resembling a punch, and at no point do the vocals feel like they are actively scooping all of the joy out of your brain with a twisted, burnt, heroin-stained spoon like Layne’s used to.
Without that raw, anguished urgency, that dull-edged vitality, what is there to distinguish this modern incarnation of Alice from all those dreadful imitators we had to listen to when the major labels started shovelling up endless AiC wannabes from the accumulated garages and dive bars of America? Who is this album supposed to be for? What is its target demographic, aside from the band’s own well-established and rapidly-ageing fanbase?
As sad as it may be to admit it, The Devil suffers the exact same problem Black did. It’s boring. Dull. Insipid. Not bad particularly, but not good enough. If this is the best you can muster on your second go round, then you might as well just pack it in, because you can only wring so much money out of your fanbase’s nostalgia and good will, before you find you’ve cashed in too far, and the good memories are gone.
Just ask Soundgarden.