- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Alice in Chains
Black Gives Way to Blue
Virgin/EMI

The three surviving members of the seminal grunge band Alice in Chains have re-formed for their first studio album in nearly 14 years and the first without frontman Layne Staley, who died in 2002 from a drug overdose at age 34.

“Black Gives Way to Blue” is likely to create a deep schism for hard-core fans. Replacing a lead singer is a dicey move for any well-known band — doubly so in the case of Alice in Chains because it was Mr. Staley who gave the group its name, its signature blend of metal and punk and its dark, forbidding lyrics. The rebirth of Alice in Chains sounds quite a bit like the original, minus the originality.

Replacement singer William DuVall is an authentic talent in his own right, as both a vocalist and a guitarist. He wasn’t, for instance, discovered toiling in a tribute band or cast through reality-show style auditions. Mr. DuVall initially served as a fill-in vocalist for a benefit in 2006 before embarking on a series of tours with the band. He writes lyrics that echo the haunted musings of his predecessor, and his voice strains to capture the grunge-rock timbre Mr. Staley perfected. Despite the lack of gimmickry in his selection, Mr. DuVall’s voice itself sounds more like a generic thrash-metal voice — gruff and gravelly without much in the way of personality.

It’s odd, of course, that the jagged intensity of the Alice in Chains sound elicits feelings of nostalgia. The music of Alice in Chains was at its core rebellious, anti-establishment and maybe even a bit nihilistic. And now Elton John is guesting on the title track of their new album.

With shades of “Freebird” and “Come as You Are,” the song “Black Gives Way to Blue,” is an ode to healing. The harmonies between Mr. DuVall’s voice and Mr. Cantrell’s guitar make it perhaps the most accomplished piece of the album. They are uncomplicatedly pretty and evocative. Mr. John’s piano part is surprisingly muted and in the background, peeking out here and there for a close-up.

“When the Sun Rose Again” is another track that deals frankly with death and mourning. It captures the unplugged sound of acoustic grunge beautifully, with a beat tapped out on wooden blocks.

The overall sound of Alice in Chains comes from Jerry Cantrell’s guitar. He manages to preserve a lot of the old tension that made the early recordings of the band so compelling. He bridges the gap between mainstream rock and fringe metal with speed-metal rhythms mixed with bluesy fills. But in doing so on “Black Gives Way to Blue,” he sounds a bit like a throwback.

While instantly recognizable as Alice in Chains, the songs don’t exactly represent a departure for the band. They are, in industry parlance, a heritage act — a group with a much-loved catalog and a loyal audience that has grown up along with them.