Review Summary: The sound of a phoenix rising from the ashes...
I was two years old when the last Alice In Chains record with Layne Staley was released.
In the decade plus since that record was released, I grew up, and became an absolute Alice In Chains super-fan. Something about their sound completely captivated me, and drew me into their world, where darkness pervades and souls are cut open to achingly show the contents. Like most Alice In Chains fans, when the announcement that AIC had reunited with a new singer to replace the dearly departed Layne, my initial reaction was pessimism. Could Jerry Cantrell & co. continue with someone new on the mic, and continue on? His vocals were the center of the band, and his status as a singer is now legendary. The news of a new album only complicated matters more. I now return to a question: Would this new album live up to Alice In Chains' 90's output, and would it be worthy of Layne?
Hell ***ing Yes it is.
Black Gives Way To Blue is simply one of the best records I have heard in a very long time. I've had it for almost four years and I still listen to it almost daily. It is simultaneously a rebirth of Alice In Chains and a worthy final goodbye to Layne Staley.
The opener All Secrets Known is both telling & deceiving. It sounds very uplifting, with the very first line: "Hope. A new beginning." It is very telling of the feelings that every member of Alice In Chains has about Black Gives Way To Blue. The song seems to say quite clearly that this IS a new beginning for Alice In Chains. The chorus "There's no going back, to the place where we started from" is haunting and once again slams home the point: Alice In Chains is beginning a new chapter in their musical career, and damned if it isn't ***ing incredible. The slithering guitar riffs give All Secrets Known it's deceptively uplifting feeling but make no mistake, Alice In Chains are still baring their souls.
Check My Brain on the other hand contains one of the most catchy riffs I have heard in forever. It's droning feel hooks you in and refuses to let go. The lyrics tell of Jerry Cantrell's move from Seattle to Los Angeles and the feelings that he felt about the move. It is a good first single, but not the greatest track Alice In Chains has written. Last of My Kind is where new vocalist William Duvall makes his presence felt. His voice, while not on the raspy and painfully beautiful level of Layne Staley, does fit into the world of Alice In Chains very well. He carries Last Of My Kind well. William has said that he is not trying to replace Layne, he is simply trying to honor him.
Speaking of the band members, everyone is in fine form on Black Gives Way To Blue. Jerry's guitar playing continues to be some of the best around. His playing is based on feel, and every guitar riff and solo seems to underscore the emotional impact of the words being uttered. Duvall contributes quite a bit of guitar on BGWTB as well, and when they lock together on a riff, it is beauty in it's finest form. Unlike most bassists, Mike Inez is not only heard clearly, but his bass lines actually contribute to the songs. His rumble powers every song, along with Sean Kinney's drums. Sean is in fine form, and he reaches beyond the usual time signatures to create unique rhythms for each song.
Your Decision is, in a word, stunning. It's acoustic bluesy feel gives Cantrell a place to shine until Duvall joins him in a series of spine-tingling of harmony vocals that only Alice In Chains can do. The lyrics tell of Jerry's brutally honest feelings about Layne's drug abuse and self-destruction. While it may feel jarring and uncomfortable to hear, this, like All Secrets Known, is a song of deep emotions. Black Gives Way To Blue is an album of loss & grief, and the lyrics on Your Decision feel like a tremendous emotional release.
A Looking In View & Acid Bubble are among the heaviest songs ever written by Alice In Chains, as the former simply bashes your ears with a tremendous thud and bass rumble, while Acid Bubble crawls along creepily until it suddenly hits a detour, as the tempo shifts into a slow-chugging guitar riff and Cantrell & Duvall repeat a haunting mantra: "Intent obsolescence , built into the system." The lyrics on Acid Bubble, like on All Secrets Known, seem to address the mere fact that Alice In Chains are still standing.
Private Hell & When The Sun Rose Again meanwhile, are two very tender songs that seem to return to the central topic of Black Gives Way To Blue: loss. Private Hell is a psychedelic shimmer, as the lyrics tell of Layne's final days. When The Sun Rose Again meanwhile is stripped raw and left bare, as Cantrell & Duvall harmonize over nothing more but acoustic guitars. The song has an uplifting feel to it, and is a sliver of sunshine on an otherwise very dark album.
At this point I would very quickly like to point out Take Her Out. The song feels almost too simple for Alice In Chains, as it features a crawling guitar riff but a very basic rhythm. The lyrics seem a little out of place on Black Gives Way To Blue, as they seem to come off as a slightly weird love song. On an album of dark songs ruminating on loss and new beginnings, Take Her Out almost feels like it simply doesn't belong. It's not a bad song, just out of place.
That brings me to the album finale. The title track of Black Gives Way To Blue is the most heart-wrenching song Jerry Cantrell and company have ever written. On an album containing most heavy guitars riffs and pounding rhythms, it contains nothing more than a mournful guitar line and sparse piano (provided by Sir Elton ***ing John), but the emotional impact is breathtaking. Jerry sings the first verse alone before William Duvall joins him in the second verse. After the second chorus, Black Gives Way To Blue simply fades out. It is incredible. The lyrics are a very direct goodbye to Layne, and are overwhelming emotionally in their grief. What an ending.
Black Gives Way To Blue is in some ways a rebirth and a finale. The emotional impact of the lyrics cannot be stated enough, but the music is also some of the best Alice In Chains has ever written. The album serves as both a final goodbye to Layne Staley and a new beginning with their new singer William Duvall. As Alice In Chains continues, they are well set for the future. However, the essence of Layne Staley will always be a major part of the band, and in some regards it feels like things should be that way. Alice In Chains lives on, and we are all better off for that.
Layne Staley would be proud...