I’ll admit when I first listened to Black Gives Way To Blue, I was put off by it. The scene was a listening event, where everyone’s expected to listen to music in a civilized yet impersonal way, as if you’re at a movie theatre or the opera—an amusing idea from a band that was at the forefront of a genre named grunge. It’s an uncomfortable thing, and I avoid these industry get-togethers, but Alice In Chains is worth making exceptions for.
And in a music landscape with dinosaur acts coming out of the woodwork to tour “one last time” and flood the market with substandard unreleased material or over-produced packages that put more consideration into the product placement than the music, AIC is yet another exception. Having spent basically the last half-decade working up to a point where Black Gives Way would see release, the band has been ever-cognizant of its own legacy while gradually introducing their new singer, William DuVall, to the fans through carefully chosen shows and festivals.
As far as Black Gives Way, it’s not the best Alice In Chains record. It’s not Dirt, it’s not the self-titled. It could never be. But it’s pretty damn good, on its own merits and against the band’s catalog, despite my initial reticence. The chorus of the single, “Check My Brain,” which I was only mildly interested in at the listening event, has been making appearances in my subconscious only after that initial listening and then later at their sold out Irving Plaza show. “A Looking In View,” the first track revealed, rubbed off on me slowly as well, even making me forget briefly during the heights of its chorus that I’m not listening to the man the album is dedicated to, Layne Staley.
“Acid Bubble” is the best song, far and away, even though the uncomfortable feeling when its bridge comes in doesn’t dissipate for several listens. It puts on display Jerry Cantrell’s never-fading ability to put together chilling harmonies, something that still grabs you like it’s the first time you heard him do it. “All Secrets Known” is a hell of an opener, and the though “Private Hell” is relatively weak, fans will appreciate band’s dueling vocal charm in the verses.
There are things to get used to, but one of them isn’t William DuVall. He’s not Layne Staley, but at a certain point, it doesn’t matter. The similarity is striking at the very least, and any fan who refuses to accept this record on the lineup change is denying himself childishly. But there is more bass on this record than perhaps their entire previous catalog put together, creating a modern pillow-y thickness and accompanying loudness that robs the sound of some dynamics that existed in the ‘90s work. However, it’s a minor point, and it seems silly to balk over with such strong songwriting still on display. There’s something stunning about Cantrell and Alice In Chains’ ability to make songs like “Check My Brain” and “Acid Bubble” this far into his career, which may put the band back on track to be one of the most celebrated acts of a generation after an unfortunate derailing seven years ago.