When I was in ninth grade, I had a pink lava lamp set up in my closet that illuminated the small walls with curvy color and atmosphere. The nearly life-size Danzig poster loomed above at an angle so that I could always see the goat’s head staring down at me. The black-light posters of the universe hinted at wonder and far-reaching dimensions, while the flanger and Metal Zone pedals stayed plugged into the little Crate amp that lived at the base of the wall. Shadows danced, but the light was warm and fuzzy. The room was a womb-like space where I felt free to make my own sounds on the cheap electric guitar I so loved.
Around this time, I remember seeing the video for Alice in Chains’ “Man in the Box” and being completely intrigued by the sound and the cast of characters. I liked how the guitar sound was somehow metal but somehow something different at the same time. Although I really loved singer Layne Staley’s urgency and vocal style, it was the vocal melody, together with the dense, droning guitar, that sucked me in, took me under, and let me resurface as someone who understood empathy. Along with Soundgarden, Mudhoney and the Melvins, Alice in Chains was one of my favorite bands to come out of the Seattle scene in the early ’90s.
High school came and went and I moved away to attend college. I co-founded a band and we put out some records and toured, and I was always living in the moment, never staying in one place for too long, and the CDs from my youth were packed away like a memory. But about five years ago I listened to Alice in Chains’ 1994 EP Jar of Flies again. It was like seeing an old friend I hadn’t seen in forever, but I remember them as being awesome and we just picked up right where we left off. Except the perspective was different and we’d experienced life a bit more. Those old, familiar sounds were resoundingly refreshing and I began to revisit all of my favorites from back then, and ’90s alternative rock permeated my bedroom during the unusually cold winter of 2009.
It’s not very often that bands who disappear for a while make a comeback record that’s actually good. Usually, they’re disappointing. How can the fire still be there? How can they be relevant in today’s climate? In the case of Alice in Chains, how can they continue without their singer, who died tragically, too young? I think it was the following spring that I heard AiC’s “Check My Brain,” from their 2009 album Black Gives Way to Blue, their first new album in 14 years and their first with new lead singer William DuVall. I was honestly surprised by how punishing the intro riff sounded — the song was totally good. I’d been unsure whether they’d be able to pull off a good record without Layne Staley, and after so many years, but Black Gives Way to Blue proved that the band was back and could still write relevant music while staying true to their original sound. And then I found out that DuVall co-founded the mid-’80s political hardcore band Neon Christ, then was in northern California hardcore band Bl’ast for a hot second and, perhaps best of all, he’s from Georgia. I was pretty much sold after that. In the summer of ’10, I saw AiC play the Sonisphere festival in the UK and they were, hands down, the best (and best-sounding) band that day. By then, I had bought the record and I believed in them again and I was just tickled that their droning form of rock & roll could be popular again in a mainstream music arena that was severely lacking good rock bands.
It seems like Alice in Chains is one of the few bands that can pick up where they left off, despite the loss of an integral member, and produce good records. The Devil Puts Dinosaurs Here is a solid follow-up toBlack Gives Way to Blue. It’s a healthy mix of classic AiC and modern production (I’ve always loved their production) and songwriting. Throughout the record, the vocals seem to be evenly shared between DuVall and Cantrell; they work quite well together, and the polished vocal harmonies complement the dirge of the guitars. I like a lot of the guitar solos too. Old fans won’t be disappointed.
There are some standout tracks but every single song is good in its own way and the album flows like an album. The first song, “Hollow,” begins with the line “Turning in circles/slowing down…” Yes. Take me to a down-tuned groove, please. On the second track, “Pretty Done,” as with a lot of this album, they bring out some of the metal elements of their early career, but in a way that nothing ever sounds rehashed. Another good example of that is the guitar and drum interplay on “Lab Monkey” — it sounds fresh but still old-school AiC at the same time. “Phantom Limb” starts with a catchy metal riff banger with a subtle guitar line before the vocals sail in over the riff. Twisting and turning throughout the song, this riff doesn’t want to leave my head. The bass intro to “Stone” is so gnarly, it makes me want to go back to my guitar closet and drone on that fuzz by the lava lamp again.