Nearly two months into 2018, the new (ish) year rolls forward, dangling in front of us, just out of reach, the lore of new, fresh rock music. One band that has recently announced the completion of the recording of their latest album are alternative rock and grunge legends, Alice in Chains. If you can believe it, five years have come and gone since the release of their sludgy, gloriously dark and haunting, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here.
That album, the band’s second full-length release since reuniting and reforming with the addition of vocalist/guitarist William DuVall proved another strong outing for the band. The disc contained not one, but two U.S Mainstream Rock number one tracks in “Hollow” and “Stone” while “Voices” peaked at number three. The album continued the band’s ridiculously strong history of consistently strong material- all while further reinventing itself from the gloomy grunge days into the legends of rock arena.
With their upcoming release, Jerry Cantrell, Sean Kinney and Mike Inez- along with DuVall will give the world their third post-Layne Staley release. And while no one can ever replace Layne, William DuVall has gone a long way in presenting himself as a powerhouse vocalist himself; one capable of paying proper homage to the band’s fallen brother all the while forging a path of his own. Interestingly enough, as this will be DuVall’s third full length release with the band, during the band’s original run, they also released three albums with Staley.
Now, we’re speaking full-length albums. If you include the EPs- the vastly underrated Sap and the insanely successful release Jar of Flies (the first EP to ever debut atop the Billboard Top 200), the odds lie heavily in favor of the Staley-era being the dominant era. But why do we have to choose? Can’t both eras of the band- each fronted by a charismatic, powerful vocalist run parallel of one another and be equally awesome. I think they can. And here is why.
Facelift, Dirt and Alice in Chains (Tripod) are grunge’s greatest trilogy. But if you think of this trio of records like an Oreo cookie, well, the best part is in the middle. Dirt is not only in my opinion the greatest sophomore album of all time, the greatest grunge of all time and the best rock record of the 90’s, it’s a god damn all time classic. It’s so good in fact, it actually lessens the impact of each of its brother albums on either side of it. For anyone who is a fan of Alice in Chains, you’re probably at least a little familiar with the short, forgettable cup of coffee they had with glam metal.
And let’s face facts- Facelift has a little hint of that at times; not that there’s anything wrong with that. If you’re talking “Man in the Box”, “We Die Young” and “It Ain’t Like That”, you probably don’t hear that big rock, arena ready glam influence. But how about on “Sunshine” or “Confusion”, you kind of hear something a little not so AIC. Still great but… a little different.
On the other end of the spectrum, their 1995 eponymous album is bizarre, beautiful and ultimately heart-breaking. The final studio release with Staley, what is most strange yet so AIC is that on two of the album’s singles, including one that is arguably one of the band’s best-know, biggest hits, it’s not even Layne Staley singing lead; it’s Jerry Cantrell. On “Heaven Beside You” and “Grind” Cantrell steps out in front and totally owns. Cantrell’s voice has always played a big role in the band- not to mention his flawless song-writing is the catalyst for the entire band- but it was here that you could see how Jerry Cantrell could probably- with minimal effort- be the lead singer of a band; a totally awesome band.
The eponymous album is like their White Album. It’s a little all over the place at times. “Frogs”, “Sludge Factory” and “So Close” kind of go on and on and while great songs, they aren’t “Junkhead”, “Godsmack” and “Hate to Feel”. What elevates Dirt in regard to this album is that any song on Dirt could be the cornerstone of a different album. But here, most of the tracks on the eponymous album really only work as a piece of a bigger puzzle that is the album. As a singular piece of work it is great- but it’s not Dirt.
I thought we wouldn’t but let’s at least touch upon Sap and Jar of Flies. Sap burst through the sonic walls of musical boundaries, leaving merely an outline akin to the Kool-Aid Guy by essentially eschewing crunching guitars and wailing vocals for a more refined, minimalist- dare I even say folk approach. More focused on harmony, melody this bare bones approach left us with “Got Me Wrong” and the argument can be made that it sits alone as their greatest song. Jar of Flies in a word is a masterpiece. See “Don’t Follow”. And I’ll leave it at that.
So. When you’re William DuVall and you’re now the lead singer of Alice in Chains. You’re looking up at some ground-breaking, heavy hitting anthems and classic albums of a better time gone by. How can you possibly face that challenge and attack it with the grace and respect it deserves all the while making it you own?
“Check My Brain”. That’s how! Holy Jeez. Where the hell did that one come from? The lead single from the band’s reunion album, 2009’s Black Gives Way to Blue” will answer the long-standing question of what exactly it sounds like for one’s jaw to crash off the floor. Rather than attempt a mere Staley impression, DuVall erupts onto the Alice in Chains scene, in perfect harmony with Jerry Cantrell.
If you had blinked, you’d have probably missed lightning striking twice. With Cantrell’s song-writing and undeniable skill to craft the perfect rock song at full-speed, Alice in Chains with DuVall on board added to their insanely consistent and deep catalog in the best way possible. Mike Inez and Sean Kinney remain one of rock’s most underrated rhythm sections. The album is a ten. In the words of Billy Bob, “it’s a motherfucking ten.” Plus- Elton John makes an appearance on the title track so there’s that.
DuVall’s confidence, cool and talent never waivers in his role with Alice in Chains. Often forgotten when everyone gets into the whole “who is better? Layne or William” talk is that William DuVall is a fantastic guitar player. Not only is he a fantastic counterpart for Jerry Cantrell vocally- but in terms of guitar playing, he adds a nice level of depth to the band’s instrumentation. I can name five bands who replaced their lead singer and you never heard of them again. I won’t because I don’t want to insult anyone but think arena rock. Alice in Chains are almost like a Van Halen of sorts. Each era is different, unique and awesome for its own set of reasons. And now…what can we expect from this upcoming album.
Can the band continue their track record of consistent success? If I’m a betting man, I’m saying yes. Dinosaurs had a ton of hits. Black Gives Way had the hits. Jerry Cantrell isn’t going to all of a sudden forget how to write great songs. And for DuVall, he’s done having to prove himself. Honestly, he never even had to. Miraculously, they have avoided falling into the pits of self-parody and uninspired repetition. Alice in Chains have seamlessly carried on their legacy in a way that is rare for bands under similar circumstances. They enriched their catalog while also carrying the torch for rock music as a scene.
They haven’t watered it down as so many bands tend to. I am a full believer in Jerry Cantrell. He wouldn’t half ass it for the sake of it. If he felt himself and the band unable to present an album that is worthy of the insanely high bar they have set, he wouldn’t force feed it to us just for kicks. With this upcoming album, in terms of full length’s it will be Staley- 3 and DuVall- 3. And the real winner? The undisputed champion of all of this- is us. The fans. Because this great band found a way to keep it fresh, keep it true and keep it exciting not only for themselves but for all of us.
Every time you listen to a post-Staley Alice in Chains release, we should recognize DuVall for the savior he is. He’s doing two things perfectly; upholding the legacy and building his own. His addition to the band has provided a whole other part of their career that in 2002, probably did not seem possible to the band. Life is all about resiliency and one’s ability to move forward. I cant think of another band who has so successfully displayed this over their career.
So, when Alice in Chains release their sixth album later this year remember two things: it will be awesome. Because everything they have put out is. Alice in Chains’ music means a lot to a lot of people. It’s meant a ton to me throughout my life. I’ve listened to them possibly more than any other band. Even my father counts them as one of the band’s he has listened to the most in his life and that’s just from hearing them blaring out of my bedroom as a teenager. The second is that neither era is better. They are all one. And they all rock. And when this new album drops, the legacy will only grow, and further solidify the DuVall era as being just as great as the Staley era. The life and times of Alice in Chains have been a nonstop journey of groundbreaking music that has aged perfectly in the ever-changing world of musical tastes.