Heavy Mental: Today… Same as Yesterday

One of the most influential, yet, for some reason, overlooked bands of the ’90s is Alice in Chains. The band’s debut, Facelift, got heavy airplay in the metal community, and was released just on the edge of the grunge explosion, before anyone had even started using the term. Straddling a mix of rock, blues and angst, the band crafted a blistering amalgam that ultimately transcended the label.

Then came the Singles soundtrack, the initially under-the-radar Sap EP, and then the best (hands down) album of the decade in Dirt. That album still sounds solid, more than 15 years later (god does that make me feel old); listen to Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger or Nirvana’s Nevermind—both from around the same time frame—and they just sound dated. As for Dirt, it still finds a home in my regular rotation several times a year.

Long story short, lead singer Layne Staley couldn’t shake the drug habit that influenced much of the band’s music, and died alone (and almost unknown) in 2002—close to a decade after the release of Dirt. And with that, Alice in Chains was no more…

Or so it seemed.

When I was hearing talks of a potential Alice in Chains reunion, I couldn’t figure out why the band wouldn’t simply soldier on as a three-piece; Jerry Cantrell had an impressive solo catalogue under his belt, and did a lot of the singing even when Staley was alive. Somehow, though, the “magic” was missing from those couple of solo albums; there’s just something to be said when Cantrell, Mike Inez and Sean Kinney unite under the AIC banner. So, after a set of shows with William DuVall in the lead singer slot, the band set forth recording what would ultimately become Black Gives Way to Blue.

The album really picks up where the band left off. Most of the time, you almost forget Staley isn’t still front and center with the group, both a comfort and a curse as a long-time listener. DuVall does a great job continuing in the tradition of the classic AIC sound, managing to somehow emulate Staley but push through with his own style, too. Without going through track-by-track, I’ll simply say that the band does a good job of mixing all the different elements of its sound — with some hard-rockers (“Acid Bubble”), mellow fair à la Jar of Flies (“Your Decision”) and thunderous dirges (“A Looking in View”) — to craft a complete experience.

Perhaps not quite the perfect release, it’s exactly what fans were hoping for. And, with the replacement of such a legendary vocalist, way more than most bargained for. In the end, Black Giives Way to Blue is quite the little gem to turn a whole new generation of fans onto the band.

In a similar vein: Pearl Jam’s recent rocker, Backspacer follows in the footsteps of 2002’s Riot Act, and while the band has, in many ways, moved away from the raw power of Ten or Vs. (something I think it tried to recapture with the self-titled album a few years ago), it’s still able to put out a raucous collection of music, continuing an almost 20-year streak and pretty much solidifying a spot as one of the most reliable rock bands of the last, well, 20 years.

As someone who still has vivid memories of being a music fan in the early- to mid-’90s, it’s quite something to see these bands continuing to make good music while influencing a whole new generation … What was old is somehow new again, and it makes me smile.

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