Review Summary: Alice In Chains does the impossible: they live on.
When a band loses a member, the path ahead is always unclear. When that member is the lead singer, the most visible member of the group, it makes the decision even harder. Some bands carry on, some decide to break up. There is no right answer, no wrong answer. There is simply a choice that has to be made, and fans will always second-guess what happens.
Alice In Chains was, unfairly, identified with Layne Staley. He was the image of the band, and a tremendous voice, but the heart and soul had always rested in Jerry Cantrell. The dark power of the band's music, from the thundering minor key riffs to the somber acoustic underpinnings, all flowed from his guitars. His harmonizing was as much a part of the band's sound as Layne. Despite this, when Layne died, Alice In Chains was believed to have died with him.
A decade later, Cantrell was tired of ignoring who he was. He was Alice In Chains, even if the band lay dormant. Paying tribute to Layne could be done in ways other than leaving the band's legacy in place. Instead, Cantrell brought the band back together, and recruited new singer William Duvall to take over the mic. He didn't replace Layne, no one could. He simply became the singer of a band that happens to be the same.
Black Gives Way To Blue marks the return of the heaviest of all the grunge bands, at a time when their influence has become so corrosive on the modern rock world. So many bands that have followed have used the template, ignoring the heart. "All Secrets Known" is, honestly, a terrible way for a legendary band to open an album this important. Slow, tuneless, and unsure of its footing, the song kills four minutes of time before the real Alice In Chains steps out of the shadows. Much like the opening act at a show, it's there, but no one is going to pay attention.
But when "Check My Brain" comes on, with the droning bent chords Cantrell fashions into a horribly addicted riff, attention must be paid. Those chords barely sound like notes, let alone music, but are hypnotic. When the song kicks into the chorus, the massive guitars finding their pitch and grabbing on for dear life, the moment is magical. The harmony between Duvall and Cantrell is perfect, and an uncanny replication of what he used to do with Layne. The song is like "Man In The Box", only better. Really.
Atmosphere was always the band's strength, and still is. The heaviest numbers, "Last Of My Kind" and "A Looking In View", don't work as well as the moody tracks. The former is a jarring collection of riffs that don't quite fit, the latter a good song stretched beyond its natural length. Misfires are expected of any band, let alone one that hasn't made an album in a decade, and as misfires, these are still acceptable songs.
It is in the lighter moments that Black Gives Way To Blue shows its strength as an album. The acoustic songs "Your Decision" and "When The Sun Rose Again" bubble with strong melodies and gorgeous harmonies. Cantrell adds tasteful solos to both songs, fitting the somber mood. That he can tease mournful tones out of even major chords is befitting everything Alice In Chains has always been. "Lesson Learned" and "Take Her Out" are a back-to-back home run, a pair of pure rock songs that keep the tones lighter, picking up the pace slightly, and giving Cantrell and Duvall ample room to ply their trade.
The best is saved for last, with the emotional one-two punch of "Private Hell" and the title track. "Private Hell" is a beautifully somber piece with glassy arpeggios and stirring melodies. The title track is a tribute to Layne, featuring Elton John on the piano, an unexpected but ultimately perfect combination to score the song. Elton's work is subtle, tasteful, and a background color that raises the song immeasurably.
Together, Cantrell and Duvall sing, "tomorrow's haunted by your ghost." It is a poignant reminder that Layne will never be far from the minds of the band or its fans. He can never be forgotten, nor should he be, but now there is a promise of tomorrow. And for that we should all be thankful.