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Alice In Chains - "Black Gives Way To Blue" (CD)

Alice In Chains - "Black Gives Way To Blue" CD cover image

"Black Gives Way To Blue" track listing:

1. All Secrets Known
2. Check My Brain
3. Last of My Kind
4. Your Decision
5. A Looking in View
6. When the Sun Rose Again
7. Acid Bubble
8. Lessons Learned
9. Take Her Out
10. Private Hell
11. Black Gives Way to Blue

Reviewed by on October 3, 2009

"'Black Gives Way To Blue' is more than just a great comeback album for Alice In Chains, it's easily the band's best offering since 'Dirt,' and even outdoes that masterpiece when it comes to offering a variety of sounds. "

In listening to Alice In Chains' "Black Gives Way To Blue," I was reminded of another album with "Black" in the title recorded in the wake of another band's popular lead singer's demise.

That album was, of course, AC/DC's "Back In Black," recorded in the wake of the death of Bon Scott, with new wailer Brian Johnson making arguably the most triumphant debut in rock history. Through all my years of listening to that album, I never thought that another band could come back from tragedy so spectacularly. With their first studio release in 14 years, Alice In Chains proved me wrong.

Granted, there are a few flaws in my analogy. AC/DC came roaring back less than a year after Scott perished. Alice In Chains had all but dissolved prior to Layne Staley's death in 2002. And, unlike AC/DC, Alice In Chains essentially had three years, starting in 2006, to audition its new singer, ex-Comes with the Fall vocalist and guitarist William DuVall.

Still, "Black Gives Way To Blue" has the same sense of tragedy giving way to triumph as "Back In Black" did all those years ago, especially on the opener, "All Secrets Known." Guitarist and singer Jerry Cantrell sings of "Hope, a new beginning/Time, time to start living/Like just before we died," and dispels the notion that this disc is going to be a mere nostalgia trip by adding "There's no going back to the place we started from."

One of the things that separated Alice In Chains from the rest of the grunge and metal pack of the 1990s was the superb vocal interplay between Cantrell and Staley, who was nominally the group's "lead singer." Finding a rougher voice who could serve as the "John Lennon" to Cantrell's "Paul McCartney" would seem to be a nearly impossible task, but the band managed to carry it off with DuVall, who makes a spectacular debut as a harmony vocalist here.

The single "Check My Brain" has some of the best vocals I've heard all year, with DuVall and Cantrell complementing each other in exactly the same kind of way Staley and Cantrell did on the classic "Dirt." In fact, in some ways it feels a little too close, but never quite falls into the realm of DuVall doing an impression of Staley.

DuVall's debut as a lead vocalist for the band, "Last Of My Kind," is impressive, with him departing from the Staley style and singing with an impressive rage in the chorus. Unfortunately, this is the only solo showcase for DuVall, with the rest of the vocals on the disc either featuring Cantrell in the lead slot or being totally devoted to double harmonies. That's not much of a complaint though, because whoever's singing, it's pretty spectacular all the way through.

Cantrell's guitar playing is also spot-on throughout the disc. "All Secrets Known" has the same sense of building dread as "Them Bones," while "Acid Bubble" has a Black Sabbath feel that just puts a chill in my bones. And then there's the spectacular acoustic playing on the "Jar Of Flies"-esque "Your Decision" that has such a great sense of warmth to it that I found myself smiling the first moment I heard it.

Though credited with writing only one song on the album (the lumbering "A Looking In View"), bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney contribute a great deal toward making this feel like a proper Alice In Chains record rather than a continuation of Jerry Cantrell's "Boggy Depot" and "Degradation Trip." The two have a natural chemistry together and know how to give a sense of motion to Cantrell's riffs which otherwise might seem static.

Much has been made of Elton John's guest turn on the elegiac title track, "Black Gives Way To Blue," which is a tribute to Staley — and rightly so. It's a beautiful, understated bit of music that perfectly complements Cantrell's raw vocals.

"Black Gives Way To Blue" is more than just a great comeback album for Alice In Chains, it's easily the band's best offering since "Dirt," and even outdoes that masterpiece when it comes to offering a variety of sounds. It's easily the best album I've heard — regardless of genre — in all of 2009.

Highs: If I had to pick a favorite moment, it'd be DuVall's superb solo vocal debut on "Last Of My Kind," but there are too many highs to mention otherwise.

Lows: None to speak of, though a second DuVall showcase would've been nice.

Bottom line: Alice In Chains roars back to life, turning tragedy into triumph in a way that recalls "Back In Black."

Rated 5 out of 5 skulls
5 out of 5 skulls

Rating Description
Rated 5 out of 5 skulls Perfection. (No discernable flaws; one of the reviewer's all-time favorites)
Rated 4.5 out of 5 skulls Near Perfection. (An instant classic with some minor imperfections)
Rated 4 out of 5 skulls Excellent. (An excellent effort worth picking up)
Rated 3.5 out of 5 skulls Good. (A good effort, worth checking out or picking up)
Rated 3 out of 5 skulls Decent. (A decent effort worth checking out if the style fits your tastes)
Rated 2.5 out of 5 skulls Average. (Nothing special; worth checking out if the style fits your taste)
Rated 2 out of 5 skulls Fair. (There is better metal out there)
< 2 skulls Pretty Bad. (Don't bother)