The times have changed
The 90’s are over and grunge is literally a dead genre by this point. Seriously, not a single original grunge album has been released since 1999. It’s now 2006 and of the big 4 of grunge; Alice In Chains, Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, only Pearl Jam is still together. In this review we cover the reformation of Alice In Chains and peer into the new style of sound that they would become known for.
Alice In Chains has been inactive and disbanded since 1996. With Layne Staley’s drug addiction very quickly spiraling out of control, Alice In Chains has been out of the music world for some time now. All but disbanded by this point, an additional blow was dealt in 2002 when Layne Staley died from a drug overdose leaving the band without their Lead singer. They remained fully inactive until 2006 when they got together for a few benefit concerts with guest vocalists like James Hetfield from Metallica and Phil Anselmo from Pantera. They desperately tried to fill the shoes that Layne had once occupied and give the fans another voice to harmonize with Jerry Cantrell’s, but it became quite clear that Layne was truly irreplaceable.
Among the sea of guest vocalists, was a man named William DuVall, who after playing a few shows was asked to join as the permanent replacement vocalist. After a few years on the road, a new album was finally released. Completely ditching the older grunge and speed metal sound, and now fully embracing a newly found Sludge Metal and Doom Metal sound. The best decision they made with this album was not trying to imitate Layne, and instead working to Will’s style, which although extremely similar to Layne, is not quite what we were used to with previous releases.
Track one, ‘All Secrets Known,’ introduces us to the new sound from Alice In Chains, and things have changed quite drastically. We are no longer plagued by an outrageously slow start to the actual song. While yes, the song is rather slow, it gets to the point very quickly and shows us that William is a force to be reckoned with. At times, William even resembles Layne enough to the point where we can just forget for a minute that this is a new singer. Its very multilayered and feels like a house that’s bigger inside than it looks outside, with parts of this song feeling much shorter than they actually are. ‘All Secrets Known’ gives us a feeling of us entering the new era, leaving behind the old sound we were used to, and taking us just far enough from our comfort zone to say, “I’m not really sure about this.” but also keeping us just close enough in to say, “It sure sounds like the Alice In Chains I knew, just a little bit different.”
The second song on the album, ‘Check my brain,’ despite having a strange title, is yet another shining example of the, “first 2 songs are always amazing” pattern that Alice In Chains has had from the beginning. It has an oddly worded chorus, and in general, is quite a bizarrely written song. ‘Check my brain’ offers another glimpse into the evolution of sound for them and really goes to show that sometimes a tragedy can lead to something beautiful. It’s got an odd tempo to it, and one that I can’t really pin down as being particularly consistent, but it’s still a very good tune.
The third track, ‘Last of My Kind,’ is the first overwhelmingly lame track on this album. While it’s not totally horrible, it isn’t even a song that I would consider being in the top 20 songs. It’s quite dragged out and just doesn’t really manage to maintain any level of interesting qualities throughout the entire song. Unremarkable and unforgettable is all I can really say for this song. The ending just drags on forever and ever.
Then we get to ‘Your decision’ which will probably be a favourite for any fan of Jar of Flies, but will probably only marginally impress fans of their other work. Its a very calm and predictable song. Lacking any of the random and zany nature that many of their other songs have; the speed remains consistent the whole way through, and it helps a great deal with the way the song is constructed. I think that if this song was even slightly faster, or slightly slower, it would probably be a pretty bad song, but the speed that it plays at is perfect for the song.
We get right back into the awesome songs when ‘A Looking in View’ starts. This 7 minute long work of art, without question, is up there with ‘Would?,’ ‘Sludge Factory,’ and ‘Bleed the Freak.’ It’s is a case that leaves you wishing it was longer, and in this instance, I honestly think this song could possibly get away with being up to 9 minutes long. Now while I am glad that it is just 7 minutes, it does get repetitive enough to where sometimes I lose track of when the song is halfway through or right at the end. This does get a tad annoying, especially when your expecting one more chorus, and the song just suddenly stops and goes to the next track. I would say, however, that this is a great halfway point for this album.
In an amazingly stark contrast, directly afterwards at track 6, we are greeted with my least favourite song from this album, ‘When the sun rose again.’ Despite being an entire 3 minutes shorter and with a higher tempo, this song is somehow a significant amount more boring than the previous song. Generally speaking, it has everything it needs to be a good song, but it’s simply been done the wrong way. The song could be quite a bit better if instead of a set of tribal sounding drums, and what I am assuming is a tupperware container full of rice being shaken in the background, they instead just had another acoustic guitar.
I will say this song has been covered many, many, times on YouTube, and quite a lot of the covers sound better than this version. I think the overall biggest problem with this, and also the entire album, is the mixing quality. In what feels like a badly balanced final mix, the instruments all sound like they are making the wrong noises for most of the time they are being played. I often find myself turning this album down quite a lot just to save myself from the pounding sensation I get at standard volume.
Issues aside, ‘Acid Bubble’ is a very good recovery, but it once again falls into the category of, “songs that make up for the previous song being boring” problem that much of this album faces. While it is very long and drawn out for a ridiculous length, I do have to concede that it is still a good song. This probably could have done with being a good 1:30 shorter at minimum, as too many parts feel as though they are repeated. Case-in-point is when Will starts saying, “Intend obsolescence, Built into the system…” which is repeated a grand total of 6 times, which is 3 more times than it really needed to be. Other than that, I don’t really have a lot to say about this song. ‘Acid Bubble’ doesn’t leave an impression with me all that much, but for what it’s worth, it’s not the worst stupidly long song they have done (after all, its hard to be somehow worse than ‘Frogs’).
An instant recovery, and a good display of what Will can do with a bit more speed, ‘Lesson Learned’ feels almost like a rejected song from Dirt, which is what I wish more of this album sounded like. It’s a pretty good display of how imitation can sometimes be the best form of flattery, and to me at least, feels like the only song where Will directly tried to sound like Layne. He does succeed, but I think it would be in his best interest to just stick to what he can do. This does still sound badly mixed though and I wouldn’t recommend listening to it on higher volumes where the flaws are a lot more obvious.
Another great song at track nine, ‘Take Her Out,’ is a display of inconsistency done right. With an unpredictable sound to it, the random bouts of speed followed by small amounts of slow and steady really make this song a fantastic show of the new sound. It’s fast where it needs to be, it’s not drawn out or overdone, and its sound balancing doesn’t really seem to be as bad as the rest of the album. This is even somewhat bearable on higher volumes as well!
But not all good things last forever, and we are made aware of this when ‘Private Hell’ begins. It should be pretty easy to tell by this point that I do not enjoy when songs are drawn out when they don’t need to be. This is a prime example of why it’s always a good idea to listen to a song at a different speed before you commit to putting it on an album. Considering that the chorus goes for almost 2 entire minutes, I often wonder what on Earth went through Jerry’s mind when he wrote this down on a note sheet. There is absolutely no reason for singing so slow that it sounds almost like the person singing it will fall asleep at any given second, and I think this is a showcase of how Jerry possibly could have made this slightly better by simply just joining in with the vocals.
Well here we are, the last song, ‘Black gives way to blue.’ First let’s just stop for a second and appreciate a few things. This is the first album without Layne and this is the final song for this album. Ultimately the final song is often the one that leaves the biggest impression, after all a story is only as good as the ending it’s working towards. If that is true, than we have arrived at the most beautiful ending. With a conclusion that is just as impactful as ‘Would?’
The final goodbye to the era that was owned by Layne Staley, this is without question an absolute high point for this album, and like ‘Nutshell,’ forces a lot of feelings to surface from the listener that is made more sorrowful when you read the lyrics for it. Elton John plays the piano on this song, and while I am not a fan of his music, I have to say that anyone who says they could have gotten a better pianist is either lying or outright wrong. The blend of William and Jerry’s singing and the guest instruments helps make this song, at minimal, their 4th best song overall. Its a song that I feel sad to hear the final seconds of every time as I’m reminded that the memories we had of Layne will eventually fade away; and while the spirit of him will always live on through Jerry it still feels sad that this is the final tribute to him. However, it’s now time to move on and become a new Alice In Chains, the Alice In Chains that Layne wanted it to become, and I think they achieve that perfectly with this final track.
Overall I give this a 5/10. While it does have quite a few good songs, the sheer number of terrible ones and mixing that, frankly I would be embarrassed to be credited for, there is just not enough to make this album better than average.
I would like to dedicate this article to Layne Thomas Staley, for creating my favourite songs of all time and making popular a genre of metal that even my grandmother enjoys. I always make sure that the final song I listen to on April 5th every year is ‘Black gives way to blue’ and that it is the final sounds that I hear before the day of Layne’s death is over.
Some fun facts about this album:
- It’s the first album with the new vocalist, William DuVall who actually left his band to join Alice In Chains
- It is their only album release to feature guest musicians
- At 54 minutes long, this is the shortest album release
- In the music video for ‘A looking in view,’ just before the 7 minute mark, a recreation of the album art of Dirt is made, with with a closer view of the woman’s face.
Thoughts? Discuss down below!
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