I come not to praise Alice in Chains but to bury them. What's that? You thought they were already dead, since frontman Layne Staley died in 2002? Think again.
I'm being flip, of course: By now, you probably know that Alice in Chains, the iconic grunge act whose limited '90s catalog (three albums, three EPs) produced more than 17 million in sales, has returned with singer William DuVall in place of overdose victim Layne Staley. They released an album last year, and now they're back on the road.
Installing a new frontman is always tricky business, but Alice in Chains was aided by nostalgia. Most times, the stand-in move's made immediately following the singer's voluntary departure (e.g., Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Van Halen, Mötley Crüe) almost inevitably leaving old fans with a bad taste in their mouth, or, more accurately, a bad sound in their ears.
From Jerry Cantrell's perspective, Staley's death must have been as much a blessing as a curse. Sure, he lost a friend, but he gained an opportunity. Though he wrote all the music, some of the lyrics, and helped provide the band's unique harmonies (for metal anyway), he was stuck with a shut-in junkie for a lead singer. After all, it was two weeks before Staley's corpse was found.
Cantrell's solo career was going nowhere, and—as cold as it sounds—Staley's "departure" finally offered him a chance to bring the multi-platinum band back without trampling too many toes. Whatever audience Alice in Chains had left had long given up hope they'd ever see the band play again while Staley was still living. Now they'd have their chance.
Cantrell even waited a seemly number of years before attempting the comeback, unlike The Who, who pushed out on tour a week after bassist John Entwistle's death in 2002. You can't fault Alice in Chains' return as just another money grab, either. Their 2005 "reunion" run was relatively brief, and when they hit the road again it was after releasing their first new album in 14 years, Black Gives Way to Blue.
But even if they did it right, one question remains: Should they have done it at all? Other than some warm(-ed over) memories for their fans, does Alice in Chains have anything to offer that is in any way fresh?
There's been no lack of Alice in Chains-like music since their departure. The band and its grunge peers spawned an unending stream of wannabes, like Godsmack, Finger Eleven, Staind, Puddle of Mudd, Drowning Pool, Tantric, et al., ad nauseum. Thanks in part to unimaginative record label executives, Nirvana, the band that killed Hair Metal, only ended up producing another wave of music aimed at angry, testosterone-addled teens and metalheads in retrograde. Alice in Chains' success made it apparent that tuneful misery could also sell. Pale imitations of these two bands have plagued the music charts for more than a decade.
While you'd never mistake Alice in Chains for Nirvana, it's important to note that they only gained popularity after Cobain got there first. Both share an appreciation for the meandering down-tuned throb of Black Sabbath and a penchant for dynamics, exemplified by Alice in Chains' juxtaposition of acoustic and electric guitars as well as quieter verses with loud choruses.
But there are some key differences. Where Cobain also loved vibrant hooky punk acts like The Vaselines and The Pixies, Cantrell's always been a steadfast metal adherent prone to expansive (long-winded?) solos and pyrotechnic displays of technique. Lyrically, Staley could stand toe-to-toe with Cobain in the frustration, alienation and self-loathing departments, but he lacked Cobain's knack for irony, evidenced on Nirvana's "Radio-Friendly Unit Shifter" and "In Bloom." It's a significant deficiency: Whereas Alice in Chains would probably stop with "Rape Me," Cobain went on to equate happiness with stupidity ("Dumb") and joke about his stomach problems on "Pennyroyal Tea"—he's "anemic royalty on warm milk and laxatives."
What's more, Cobain was painfully aware of his own malingering (in his suicide note, he referred to himself as an "emasculated, infantile complain-ee"). Even Staley's self-hate was virulent enough for him to slowly poison himself with drugs. But Alice in Chains adherents seem afflicted with an utter lack of self-awareness. For all those angst-ridden bros, you'd think that an Aaron Lewis or a Jacoby Shaddix would have suffocated on their own bile by now. They're likely too busy counting their money. Absent Cobain's self-consciousness, we're left with legions of posers who need to get a real job and some antidepressants—or at least shut the fuck up with their chronic bitching. They're playing music for a living, not digging ditches.
One can't help but question whether Alice in Chains would've been successful if not for Nirvana or if they'd called Minneapolis home instead of Seattle. It's hard to say, but I have my doubts. Yet they certainly sound a lot better sound than the acts that followed. Even unplugged, there's something about their music—aided by Staley's evocative, ground-hugging snarl—that remains powerful and evocative.
But 15 years later, that just feels tired and uninspired, especially after all of the intervening grunge drivel we've lived through. Putting out an album like Black Gives Way to Blue, which adheres closely to the original formula, doesn't make much sense. Sure, tracks such as "Check My Brain" and "Last of My Kind" approach the band's former glory, but that's a fairly weak criterion. Which punks among us would be satisfied if Fugazi returned with something that sounded sort of like Repeater, just with a different singer?
It's not Cantrell, Mike Inez and Sean Kinney's fault that a thousand bands spent the last decade-plus biting their style and diluting their impact. And I don't begrudge them their return, either.
But, again, what does it really amount to? Blind Melon returned from a dozen-year hiatus in 2006 with a new frontman, but after the furor subsided and a fresh record was released, does anyone remember they're back? Alice in Chains made a bigger mark on music, but once the comeback's novelty subsides it's difficult to imagine that there will be a lot of excitement (see Guns N' Roses). By now, their primary audience has moved on. They've got kids and houses. Aren't they a little old to be digging in the Dirt?
I'm not betting against (or burying completely) Alice in Chains, at least not yet. Cantrell's work in Alice in Chains showcases a lot more melody and sophistication than that of his acolytes, and he's probably capable of moving the band forward stylistically. But this new lease on life is more sublet than rent-to-own.
So we'll welcome you back, but without something new to say, it's just a slightly better expression of something we've heard too many times before. Nostalgia's fine, but after a while it gets old.