That we're now only hearing a new album from Alice In Chains in 2009 says much about how heavy the loss of band frontman Layne Staley weighed upon the shoulders of the remaining members of the group. While outfits such as AC/DC, Thin Lizzy and more have managed to overcome the death of a vocalist, it's never an easy ordeal to undertake, for the band themselves, or the fans.
Factor in that Staley's pained drug-laden paeans not only helped to define Alice In Chains, but also a good portion of the repertoires of metal vocalists to come and the pressure to live up to a mutli-platinum legacy is practically spine crushing. However, unlike most groups faced with this unfortunate situation, Alice In Chains have a unique advantage in that band guitarist/vocalist Jerry Cantrell was as integral to the vocal duties as Staley himself. Their constant harmonizing, pairing up and trading off vocals truly eases old fans into what the latest incarnation of Alice In Chains has become all these years later.
In fact, if there's one thing about "Black Gives Way To Blue" that can immediately be appreciated, it is the tenderness and honesty with which they approach the absence and death of Staley. From the stirring piano driven ballad of the albums title track, a sullen, yet hopeful song of loss and healing written for Staley, complete with a guest cameo from Elton John on the keys; to the mangled chords of "Check My Brain", the band not only pull no punches, but they keep their guard up enough to retain an air of composure and focus as well.
Of course the main question in regards to this outing is how the integration of Staley's replacement, William DuVall, comes to bear. It's quite obvious that there are many similarities between the vocal deliveries and tonalities of the two, but it's also apparent that DuVall isn't interested in merely mimicking Staley's trademark croons. Rather, he puts his own soulful spin on them, replacing the sorrow brought on by hopeless drug addiction with a measure of vulnerable resolve and ultimately, determined strength.
Still, while the bulk of this album readily falls in the Alice In Chains canon and delivers a number of enjoyable and memorable tracks; the outlying positivity of it may be a bit off-putting to fans of a band who once practically personified drowning in the side effects of a self-destructive culture. Truly the healing process has begun and it was not just Staley who suffered from his demons, but "Black Gives Way To Blue" is album that seems intent on pulling the listener up instead of dragging them under.
That said, Alice In Chains are most certainly back and have delivered a strong effort that has updated the grunge playbook with enough modern flair to avoid dating itself. A number of soothing vocal harmonies, clever phrasing and more dot the chunky riffs and ever patient rhythm section. It's just that for all the swells of emotion that well up and eventually crash upon the rocks, the absence of Staley's uncomfortable darkness continually overshadows the groups efforts. A great album by a legendary band, but one that will likely forever be haunted by its own tragic past.
(4 / 5)