Alice in Chains paved the way for grunge in 1990 with their debut album Facelift, and followed up that effort with 1992’s Dirt, one of my top 5 favorite albums of all time. By the time the band released their self-titled album in 1995, lead singer Layne Staley’s drug problems were already well known to the public and were causing great friction within the band. The band ceased performing and recording; Staley withdrew from the spotlight and withered away. Unsurprising to almost everyone, he died of a cocaine/heroin overdose in 2002.
While there are many examples of bands dropping their original lead singers and going on to achieve fame and fortune with their replacements (does anyone really talk about the glory days of Iron Maiden with original vocalist Paul DiAnno?), few already popular bands have successfully continued after losing their front men. There’s AC/DC, Van Halen, and … well, that’s about it. The thought of anyone even attempting to replace Staley’s vocals made me depressed, so let me kick things off by making the following statement:
Alice in Chains’ “Black Gives Way to Blue” is the best album of 2009.
“All Secrets Known,” the album’s opening track, lays everything out up front:
Hope, a new beginning / Time, time to start living / There’s no going back to the place we started from / All secrets known.
While most people think of AIC’s vocals as belonging solely to Layne Staley, they were, in fact, a combination of harmonies between Staley and co-vocalist/guitarist Jerry Cantrell. “All Secret’s Known” focuses heavily on Cantrell’s voice and staccato riffing. The harmonies sound so familiar it’s uncanny; you can almost feel Staley’s presence on the track. The guitars are thick and layered and ominous. The album moves into “Check my Brain,” a track featuring one of the most interesting guitar riffs I’ve heard in a long time (it’s one note being bent in and out of tune). Again the vocals are familiar.
It’s not until “Last of my Kind” that new vocalist William DuVall takes front and center. His range and tone are remarkably similar to that of Staley’s. When on his own, DuVall compliments Staley; when harmonizing alongside Cantrell, he channels him.
At least three of the album’s eleven tracks, including “Your Decision” and “When the Sun Rose Again,” are throwbacks to the band’s softer, acoustic sound. The album is well balanced, varying tempo and ferocity — “A Looking in View,” the album’s first single, is as heavy any anything from the band’s back catalog.
The album’s closing track, “Black Gives Way to Blue,” serves as a final farewell to Staley. When Cantrell says he’s “haunted by your ghost” we feel it; when he says “I’ll remember you,” he speaks for all of us. The touching tribute (which features Elton John on piano) won’t leave a dry eye in the house when played live.
Black Gives Way to Blue stands as both closure to times past and, hopefully, new beginnings. The album is dedicated to Staley (and its sound reflects that) and is definitely therapeutic for both the performers and fans alike. How the band plans to continue in the future is anybody’s guess, but as of right now make no mistake about it: Alice in Chains is back.