The Seattle grunge scene of the late ’80s to mid ’90s has become a thing of legend for younger generations of rock fans. Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam are the three most lauded by the general public and with good reason but, as soon as you move a little further into the shadows, you encounter the heavier riffs and striking vocals of Alice In Chains.
They have returned with their sixth LP and third since the tragic loss of vocalist Layne Staley in 2002. This now balances out the reincarnated era of the band, with three album releases involving the vocals of William DuVall and three with those of his late predecessor.
Album opener ‘The One You Know’ is utterly demonic. The chorus shows the two vocalists working in harmony, belting out “Tell me, does it matter if I’m still here, or I’m gone?” in a song where they discuss guilt and detachment from those you love.
The title track that follows isn’t as heavy, with its instrumentation reminiscent of Stone Temple Pilots. It is retrospective, speaking of getting over demons from the past, with “see through skin” as though now hollow from past actions. This is a theme that is evident throughout the release, perhaps in acknowledgment of where they now are in the timeline of the band.
‘Red Giant’ follows a similar recipe to the opener, but the vocals mellow in comparison. Like a metronome, ‘Fly’ then sends the album back to the softer realm of alt rock with acoustic guitars introduced. It is as though the band are exhibiting their versatility within the spectrum of their genre, with both sides of this coin executed as immaculately as any band could.
‘Drone’ is something of a love song, whilst also containing one of the best lines in the album at the end of the chorus: “I’ll stay here and feed my pet black hole”. In terms of sound, it finds a mid-point between the two sonic spaces occupied up to this point of the album. There are clear comparisons that you can draw to Audioslave‘s take on the genre and the lead guitar tone in particular could easily be taken from Tom Morello‘s pedal board.
The following track ‘Deaf Ears Blind Eyes’ heads down the stoner rock route, tilting their hat to Californian rockers gone by, whilst ‘Maybe’ opens with a cappella vocals like some kind of minor key Kansas.
In the album’s second single ‘So Far Under’, the grit of the opening guitar riff acts as the song’s back bone, whilst DuVall‘s lyrics are striking. Of them, he said: “It’s about feeling completely up against it … and being really pissed off about it. It was inspired by personal circumstances, as well as events in the wider world. But it’s not as resigned to defeat as it may seem.” The guitar solo that then he unleashes three and a half minutes is sublime, starting off working around the vocal melody before making his way up the fretboard. Textbook.
The drums are in your face from the offset in ‘Never Fade’, in what is probably the most upbeat song of the album. Lyrically, it follows on from DuVall‘s suggestion that things aren’t as bad as they may seem. Indeed, only this band could pull off such juxtaposing lines to open a song: “Silent grief suffocates the room, I feel my breathing speed up at the thought of you.” From grief to lust, these two lines almost epitomise this album as a whole; scarred, but not damaged.
To finish the album, all 53 minutes of it, we have a seven minute epic in the form of ‘All I Am’. With a slow fade in and out, acoustic guitars and solos in the plural, it feels like the musical incarnation of a sigh of relief. The relaxation, letting the hair down after something big. That’s exactly what this album is – something big.
Alice In Chains were never plunged into the mainstream, so there never seems to be pressure on them to drastically evolve their sound. Instead, whenever they return with a release, what you get is a fine-tuned masterclass of what the Seattle scene was all about: facing up to one’s demons with a guitar in hand. Whilst there is a lot of self-reflection and retrospection through the album, with their trademark haunting vocal duo, it feels positive. There is an underlying optimism that flows through this LP, as though they have finally put something behind them. Whatever it is, it’s infectious.
‘Rainier Fog’ by Alice In Chains is out now via AIC Entertainment.