It takes some serious mental trench warfare to come up with a new album 14 years after the last one and still maintain one’s innate sound without sounding like a parody of oneself. Look at what happened to the much delayed, far too anticipated Guns’n’Roses album Chinese Demo-cracy. As if the time out wasn't bad enough, when one of the most respected bands from the 90s, Alice in Chains, lost their charismatic singer Layne Staley to a speedball overdose in 2003, a lot of us who keep a copy of Dirt, the band’s majestic second album in our Godrej lockers, realised it was curtains for the band.
And then, just as I was watching my knuckles grow drier and bonier each time I heard ‘Would?’ or ‘Rooster’ with the lights turned off in my doghouse, there was chatter about a new Alice in Chains album. Perhaps because I had no expectations, or since this fourth (yes, incredibly only their fourth!) studio album is kid-you-not good, Black Gives Way To Blue provides me the grand illusion that time and taste submit to quality music — and that even by ageing I haven’t aged a bit.
That Alice in Chains has a heavy metal pedigree becomes apparent from the first plectrum-plucking bars in the opening track, ‘All secrets known’. But you see a ghost when you listen to new singer William DuVall. He sounds so much like Staley. And that’s when you realise, perhaps for the first time, how much Staley’s voice and singing style were an integral part of the Alice in Chains sound. And also how guitarist and backing vocalist Jerry Cantrell is the great helmsman of this much-battered ship made of dark wood.
The first subterranean floor of this castle is announced by the off-key flies-wings drone of ‘Check my brain’. And there it is again — that warped, purgatorial version of Lennon-McCartney harmonisations that’s such a Staley-Cantrell signature, this time retro-fitted to DuVall-Cantrell. Cantrell shifted from “broody” Seattle to California a few years after Staley’s death and his words reverberate through DuVall's voice: “And so I found myself in the sun, oh yeah/ A hell of a place to end a run, oh yeah/ California, I’m fine/ Somebody check my brain/ California’s alright/ Somebody check my brain.” Now I know why I found Delhi’s sun so refreshingly dark when I moved here years ago.
In ‘Last of my kind’, DuVall goes into classic(al) heavy metal waters, the chug-chug of the number weighing down like an unshakeable sin. From headbangers’ ball we move to acoustic chamber music in ‘Your decision’, a song that charms us with its melodic simplicity. We could be sitting in a garden staring up at the sky. But we’re not on the grass, not when we hear, “You feed the fire that burned us all/ When you lied/ To feel the pain that spurs you on/ Black inside.”
The lawn certainly turns blacker on this side of the fence in ‘A looking in view’, the Slayer-like chainsaw guitars announcing much change since the last song. ‘When the sun rose again’ returns us to those ‘disharmonic’ harmonies, tabla taps pattering on the windows of this acoustic train. This is Beatles For Sale meets Rust Never Sleeps music, and that’s pretty good in anybody’s book.
‘Acid bubble’ takes us deeper into the fog of this mood music, but what’s those machine-gun lines, “Intent obsolescence/ Built into the system”, that make us feel as if we were in a System Of A Down gig? ‘Lesson learned’ comes as a rescue jalopey. A bit of straightforward major-minor key plunges in ‘Take her out’ later, we’re deposited in ‘Private hell’ that’s more like a dentist’s waiting room than the padded cell I had expected — and the guitar solo doesn’t help.
What helps is the finale to this album, the title track. Axl Rose was probably looking for this lilting number in the last G’n’R album. Elton John, not known for his grungy attire or dark moods, plays piano on this haunting homage to Staley — although I think it’s more because of Elton being the patron saint of beautiful dirges rather than for his keyboard talent that he’s guest-roling as the piano man here. And just for the record, Layne Staley was no Lady Di, nor was he meant to be.
Thus comes the end of Black Gives Way To Blue, an album that returns to us a great band we had thought was a goner. Now, with a few new good tracks wafting about, all we have to do is patiently wait for a new, great Alice in Chains album.