Thursday, April 4, 2013

Alice in Chains v. the haters

Almost every new Alice in Chains video that goes up on YouTube seems to elicit a few comments along the lines of “Alice in Chains died with Layne Staley” with monotonous regularity.  Add to that a number of (relatively popular) pages such as this and it’s clear there’s a reasonable cross section of rock fans out there that hold the view “No Layne, No Chains”.

Nothing that follows should be taken as suggesting Layne was anything other than one of the most unique and talented vocalists of his era.  But that doesn't mean the band can't move on without him.  Personally, I’m pretty tired of hearing the haters who totally discount the post-Layne era of AiC for a number of reasons.  

Firstly, that view totally ignores the quality of AiC’s output since they’ve reformed.  Black Gives Way to Blue is actually a really strong album, and probably second only to Dirt in terms of AiC’s studio albums.  It doesn't have the raw edge of Dirt, but that's because they're not taking ridiculous quantities of drugs these days.  Equally, there's a level of craftsmanship and texture on tracks like Lesson Learned and Private Hell that wasn't present on the earlier material.  Cover to cover, BGWTB is a quality listen and certainly worthy of sitting in the AiC discography alongside the three earlier studio albums.  If anyone writes off that album because Layne isn't on it, it's really their loss.  And, for what little it's worth, I should add that BGWTB received almost universal critical acclaim - including maximum ratings from both Kerrang! and Metal Hammer.

Secondly, Jerry Cantrell has always contributed almost all of AiC’s songwriting.  Initially he also wrote almost all of the vocals, although Layne played an increasing major lyrical role (the self-titled studio album, and the last to feature Layne, is roughly 50/50 Cantrell/Staley).   However, you can count Layne’s primary songwriting credits on less than one hand (Angry Chair is the only song of particular note).  When Layne died, the band (on hiatus at that time) undoubtedly lost a uniquely gifted and talented vocalist, who was an important element of their sound.  However, while they lost the singer, they didn’t lose the songs – or the guy who wrote most of them (and continues to do so).  There are plenty of examples of bands who lost (or replaced) a vocalist, but were able to successfully continue because their songwriting and musical core was still intact – Deep Purple, Black Sabbath (when Dio replaced Osbourne… some of the subsequent examples don’t work so well!) and probably biggest of all, Iron Maiden after replacing Paul Di’Anno with Bruce Dickinson.  Ironically, in the case of Maiden, there is still a (small and insane) subset of fans who insist that the real Iron Maiden ended with Killers in 1981.

Thirdly, although Layne’s vocals were an unmistakable element of the classic-era AiC material, the vocal harmonies between him and Jerry Cantrell were equally unmistakable.  Go back and listen to Dirt – harmonized vocals appear on almost every song.  They’re more prominent on some songs than others, but that quintessential eerie AiC vocal tone that pervades throughout that album, as well as on the self-titled album, is thanks largely to the use of vocal harmonies between the two singers.  AiC's approach to vocals is actually a lot closer to the way many bands approach a two-guitar setup - there's a lead player (Layne), and a "rhythm" player (Jerry) who adds texture.  And sometimes the rhythm player takes the lead as well.  But it's a two-pronged attack - rather than a solo effort.  And I think that sometimes people assume AiC's vocals on the older material were all Layne.  Which they weren't.

Fourthly, new vocalist/guitarist William DuVall has filled some enormous shoes in admirable fashion.  I saw AiC live at Soundwave a few years ago, prior to the release of BGWTB.  They were playing only the old stuff, at that stage.  And they carried it off extremely well.  DuVall never appeared to be trying to emulate Layne - he was playing to his own (considerable) strengths whilst being as faithful to the songs as possible.  Cantrell picked up a few of Layne's vocal parts too, and overall it came across like having a dual vocal/guitar attack.  And they did a great job of delivering the classic songs within that new dynamic.  And frankly, just straight up credit to the guy as well for delivering on a very tough assignment.  What he's doing is essentially like asking someone to replace Chris Cornell in Soundgarden, to replace Eddie Vedder in Pearl Jam, or to replace Maynard James Keenan in Tool.  And he's doing a great job of it thus far.

Fifthly, given time I think the new approach is going to allow AiC to expand their sonic palette.  The improved craftsmanship and texture on BGWTB that I mentioned earlier is largely due to Jerry's songwriting maturing - he's still the primary songwriter (albeit DuVall picked up almost as many songwriting credits on that one album as Layne did in his entire tenure with AiC).  Having two very capable singer/guitarists gives them a lot of opportunities to explore, as opposed to being confined to the usual four-piece dynamic.  Last of My Kind hinted at some of the possibilities, and given it was one of my favourite tracks off BGWTB, those possibilities are pretty exciting.  Wikipedia currently seems to be crediting both DuVall and Cantrell as vocalists, lead and rhythm guitarists on the forthcoming album The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here which hopefully means I might not be too far off on this one.

And finally, some of the creative direction behind The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here has me somewhat intrigued.  The press I've read indicates that the band landed upon this title as a criticism of religion's ongoing denial of some fairly basic scientific evidence and that this theme is reflected in some of the album's lyrical content (for those who don't know, the title refers to a religious contention that dinosaur bones were put on the earth by the devil to convince us that the Earth was actually older than the 6,000 years that Christianity would generally like to have you believe.  So yes, the devil made up all that big bang and evolution stuff).  It's an interesting, critical perspective that the older AiC probably never could have taken because, let's face it, all those drugs were bound to muddle the brain somewhat.

In summary, Layne was awesome (RIP), but subsequently AiC have (remarkably) continued to be excellent, and haters gonna hate.

No comments: