Review Summary: Even if it is straight out of the 1990s, Black Gives Way to Blue is about as perfect as perfect gets.
“Hope, a new beginning/Time, time to start living/Just like before we died/There’s no going back to the place we started from,” sings frontman Jerry Cantrell as Alice in Chains’ first album in many years clicks to life. This may be one of the truest lyrics ever put to words, as Black Gives Way to Blue
is an album that picks up where Alice in Chains left off. Literally, this band hasn’t lost a step throughout the years and the tragic loss of Layne Staley. They picked up their down-tuned, distorted tone that was forming with albums like Tripod, and have finished that statement with Black Gives Way to Blue
. All respect to Layne Staley, but unlike other 90s bands such as Smashing Pumpkins who tried to carry on without key elements, Alice in Chains sound like Alice in Chains. And really, that’s all the fans wanted.
But Jerry Cantrell has shattered expectations, because they weren’t very high. If you can ever manage to wade through YouTube comments, people posting “It’S NoT AiC withOut LAYEN STALEY” are in major abundance. But they couldn’t be farther from the truth. Jerry Cantrell essentially takes vocal duties in a lot of the songs, and layers them thick with Staley’s replacement, William DuVall’s vocals. Essentially by now Layne Staley would have been about 40, and the Cantrell/DuVall combination is a nice replication of what Staley would have probably sounded like at this age. Layne Staley’s absence isn’t that big of a factor on this album as people expected. Not to mention, DuVall-centered songs like “Last of My Kind” showcase some pretty awesome vocals. DuVall sounds really pissed in this song, and it rocks. The only thing you can notice about Staley being gone is that a bit of emotion is missing, but Layne was one of rock’s best vocalists, so it’s hard to hold everyone to that standard.
Jerry Cantrell’s guitar riffs are darker, slower, heavier, and sludgier than ever. It’s as if Cantrell spent a lot of time listening to Mastodon (ironic, as they were influenced by Alice in Chains’ older albums) and put his own dark twist on the music. “Check My Brain” has a filthy, trippy monotone riff that rocks even if the chorus of “California’s all right/Somebody check my brain,” is a bit too happy for typical Alice lyrical matter. The two sharp lengthy centerpieces “A Looking in View” and “Acid Bubble” bite with nasty slow riffs straight out of Dirt
as they change rhythms in razor-sharp succession. The latter sounds a whole lot like a 90s track, but we’re all due for some true 90s nostalgia, so I’m not complaining. “A Looking in View” is one of the band’s heaviest. It’s pretty loud and droning, but keeps you headbanging for the whole song. The mosh-pit inducing “Last of My Kind” is “Angry Chair”’s older brother chock full of spindling riffs and loud, pissed-off vocals. “Private Hell” has a “Down in a Hole” slow-burning heaviness kind of aura, and is every bit just as dark.
What is unexpected is how good this album’s slower songs are. “Your Decision” is an atmospheric, acoustic anthem that is bound to become a smash single. “When the Sun Rose Again” must be a Jar of Flies
B-side or something, as it’s haunting nature and the unusual percussion just is very reminiscent of “No Excuses”. However, I’d probably say the title track “Black Gives Way to Blue” is the album’s high point as even though I was expecting an Elton John singing cameo, you can immediately tell the piano legend is on the keys. Jerry Cantrell’s heartfelt ballad to Layne Staley is a heartwrenching, dark dedication to his lost friend and comes off as completely real and honest. A true Alice in Chains standout, by far.
I’ve spent a lot of time comparing the songs to 90s counterparts, but honestly I can’t say that this album would have been out of place in 1996. It’s like a modern, sludge metal influenced version of Dirt
and, hell, I like it. There’s practically nothing wrong with the album as it’s damn near impossible to pinpoint something actually wrong with the album itself. Catchy, heavy, atmospheric, and emotional. Everything a good Alice in Chains album should be. Obviously, the band moved on without Staley, but did so respectfully and came out on top of their game.
Oh, and if you are one of the people who says this isn't Alice in Chains because Staley isn't here, here is a gigantic middle finger, just for you.