Being the site’s resident grunge geek, I very nearly “shat myself with happy” at being able to attend the London listening party for the eagerly-awaited-by-me 2009 Alice in Chains comeback album Black Gives Way to Blue. A hasty last-minute post on the AIC blog had offered five fans the chance to hear the whole album a nice and juicy 2 months before its official release date, and other than that, there seemed to be little warning of the gathering.
Naturally the big question for this event, rumoured to be 2 hours long, was “WILL THE BAND BE THERE? WILL THEY? EH? TELL ME!!!!” AIC’s tour diary seemed to suggest it was possible. No US dates at the tail end of July, and a Dublin, Ireland date on 1st August meant that at the very least they were within a week of being on the right side of the planet.
Turns out, however, that they weren’t there. Which makes sense when you see the size of the downstairs private bar in the Sanctum Soho Hotel. It’s the size of my bedroom. A serious dry-humping cluster-fuck would have ensued if any of the band had actually turned up.
All mobiles, cameras, mp3 players and massive microphones attached to sophisticated mixing desks marked “Intended For Piracy Use” had to be left outside, unfortunately. A man with a magic wand scanned each of us as we went in. There are no recordings of the night.
However, Sean Kinney and Jerry Cantrell had made a pre-recorded address to the 35 or so guys and gals that had made the trek down. It was hilarious, I do hope they stick it on Youtube someday. Reading shakily from pieces of paper, Jerry and Sean variously (and deliberately, of course) misread, stammered, interrupted and repeated their way through a “thank you for coming” style note (at one point Sean read out that he was “really looking forward to playing at Sonic The Hedgehog…sonic….sonisphere.” They even had a hard time reading out their own album name, repeating it variously with weird intonations like “Black Gives WAY to-blue.” Trying to look at the camera, they lost their place on the page, and right at the end the whole affair collapsed into bickering, with Jerry claiming “hey that was my part you read out. That’s my part dude.” Hilarious self-deprecating stuff!
A screening of the new video (which can, despite Youtube’s dim efforts to remove it, watch everywhere including the band’s site) followed immediately after on the big screen. As soon as it had finished the album kicked in as seamlessly as going from one track to the next.
Now I was expecting A Looking in View to be Track 1. Which it’s not. The opening track begins with a series of 3 note arpeggios with the lowest note shifting a semitone for each alternate bar, heavily distorted, before blowing out into long sustained powerchords. Freaking sweet.
And all the while that haunting voice…
Were you not privy to the knowledge of previous singer Layne’s death in 2002, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s him on the CD. I was even starting to wonder if a trick was being played on me, or if the music was old material from AIC’s 1995 three-legged-dog-tripod-eponymous-yellow-purple album. Certainly the predominant vibe (and most definitely the twisted comedy horror Victorian artwork, that flashed up on a projector for every new song) are stylistically very close to Tripod.
So here then are the wailing multi-layered twisted harmonies of a sobbing angel that made the band famous (and unfortunately ultimately gave us Puddle of Mudd, Chad Kroeger and Days of the New’s most recent 3 albums…)
Track 2 is the upcoming single Check My Brain, which chorus is very close to the vibe given off by Facelift’s Sunshine – and it would be too happy-go-lucky were it not for the deliberate dissonance of the main riff, which uses a tremolo effect to bend portions of the riff alternately down and up a semitone. This track is, of all of them, the one that most closely resembles the “like Sabbath but faster” moniker the new album seems to be earning.
Your Decision is track 4 (I don’t remember track 3, except that it was heavy as hell and fitted with its surrounding tracks in style, tone and pace.) This is the first acoustic bit. Both the New York listening and the London listeners have noted that the song sounds like Keep on Rocking in the Free World combined with Nutshell – a Nutshell, however, it isn’t – the chords aren’t as cleverly arranged, much more straightforward. It struck me as a track that would fit better on Jerry’s solo project. Certainly a good song, and one of the times Jerry takes lead vocals like in the good old days of Brother, Grind, and others (I am avoiding Heaven Beside You and Over Now because they aren’t to my mind anywhere near as good as anything on this album.)
A Looking in View sits track 5, and since that’s already released and reviewed, I won’t do the same here again.
Track 6 is another acoustic one, and at this point the free beer was reaching critical mass, and some “fan” next to me was yelling his various opinions loudly into the evening. It got so irritating that I, a meek and tolerant chap, ACTUALLY asked him to pipe down, leading to the following bizarre conversation:
Me: Excuse me, could you keep it down a little?
Him: Keep what down?
Me: (stares blankly)
He was either drunk, or a moron, and possibly both. Or he had an erection, and may have thought I was asking him to keep THAT down. Anyway, to his credit he did quieten down and we didn’t end up in the paper the next day.
There are, to my knowledge, 12 tracks on this album (although the reviewer in the New York listening event counted 11, so I may well be wrong) – none are as upbeat as Heaven Beside You, which, if you’re anything like me and dislike that song, is fantastic. Most tracks are steadily paced, one track in the centre of the album (track 7) features pretty much the only tempo and rhythm change, from a balmy twisted song akin to Shame in You, to a flooring odd-rhythmed Dam that River style riff. The song makes the leap twice, and it’s so different that you could be forgiven for thinking, as I did, that’s it’s actually a new song.
Tracks 8 and 9 become a blur at this point, mostly because I was too busy throwing down as many free Cuscados or whatever the hell that beer was (anyone remember? I sure don’t) and ruminating as to whether the free sampler CD dished out at the beginning may not, as it advertised, feature seven famous songs but in fact the new album – it doesn’t unfortunately. They’ve thought of everything, these guys.
The New York reviewer noted that track 9 sounded like Sea of Sorrow – and in my addled state I remember thinking the same thing about one of the later songs – so it’s probably the same one – something about the key reminded me of their earlier work, in a most excellent way.
Track 10 escapes me, even when I read all the other notes people have made on it. It will remain one of the universe’s great mysteries. That is until the album comes out. That’ll probably clear it up.
Unfortunately the last track is the one I missed part of, due to bladder issues. However, a quiet, beautiful acoustic and piano track with soothing and plaintive vocals, it appears to be the eponymous Black Gives Way to Blue, which Jerry and co have admitted is the track written specifically about Layne.
And that’s it!
So what do we all get to take away with us?
A short and dubious history of the frontman merry-go-round in modern Rock
Well, as if to remind us of what proper harmony-metal is SUPPOSED to fucking sound like (Nickelback, it’s the back of YOUR chair we’re kicking), Alice in Chains have crafted an album of pure twisted “pretty music that makes you want to die“. AND they’ve seemed to succeed at the hardest thing any band forced into replacing a singer has to do – meet expectations, avoid simple vocal mimicry, placate fans that won’t be fucking happy either way, and fill the lyrical gap left by a band member who is usually the centre of the songwriting and performing force. Deep down I didn’t think they could do it, although I love their brand of music so much I might have never admitted it even if it turned out a disaster.
And history has not been kind to the bands who’ve made the jump. Although AC/DC is still a great band, fans have always been decidedly divided between the Bon Scott era and the Brian Johnson era that kicked off with Back in Black (an eerily similar title to the Chains album, perhaps intentional?) Think of what happened to Skid Row when they changed singers – Thickskin was a disaster. Revolutions per Minute was badly received by most fans – and it’s fair to say Sebastian Bach is one tough mother to replace. Van Halen have changed singers so many times that I think I’M actually scheduled to take over from Celine Dion sometime next year, the incumbent singer since Daffy Duck left. Warrant sucked BEFORE they changed singers, so you can imagine what an awesome failure Born Again was. Black Sabbath changed their singer and their name so many times that they are now officially recognised as a village by the United States of America.
But there are (arguable) successes – Judas Priest famously replaced their singer Rob Halford with a Judas Priest tribute band lead singer Tim Ripper Owens (whose “fan becomes star” story went on to form the inspiration for the cyclical Wahlberg film Rock Star) – and he was better than the original (bring on the flamers…) Guns ‘n’ Roses did the opposite, and the singer replaced the entire band instead, collecting up the world’s best session musicians. The results are, if relatively positive, nothing like the original band except the voice, proving that it ain’t ALL about the singer. Of course the remaining Guns ‘n’ Roses members had already reformed in a number of projects including Slash’s Snakepit and Velvet Revolver (the latter’s first album being the closest in style and sound to GnR that has occurred yet, but with an entirely different vocal style from Scott Weiland known as “being addicted to drugs”.)
In short, replacing the singer is a bloody difficult feat that even the best and most professional bands in rock cannot always pull off. And most of the time they really, really don’t.
And with Alice this is a particularly hard task, since the vocals were so very unusual and stylistically noticeable – luckily the band’s big driving force has (sorry Layne fans) always been Jerry Cantrell – Angry Chair being the exception, having been penned by Layne in its entirety. But they key, other than William Duvall being a top frontman, is the rest of the band. Something about being reunited with Mike Inez and Kinney brings something out in Jerry and the band that simply won’t appear when Jerry uses Mike Bordin and Metallica’s bassist Robert Trujillo in his solo projects.
Amid the shitty commercialised faux-margin-rock of the 2000s, a band that simply rocks your socks is a welcome return of quality, song craftsmanship and good old fashioned bloody NOSTALGIA. Welcome back boys.