So, Grunge heavyweights AiC are back, with William DuVall taking Layne’s late, lamented place up font, and while it’s a neat transition album, there’s a touch of the Metallica New Member Syndrome that stops this from reaching its full potential.
Let’s get down to brass tacks first of all – Layne Staley, for all his qualities as a singer, was not Alice In Chains. It’s appropriate that that central role falls, as always to Jerry Cantrell. It’s that trademark atonal riffage that pushes this along, bringing back every flannel-shirt-and-Doc-Martins memory you thought you’d buried. This isn’t a tribute to Layne Staley, it’s just Alice In Chains, producing a dark and powerful album that isn’t their best, but is representative of their unique vision and sheer heaviness compared to other bands that rode the Seattle boom to fame.
One thing that stands out is how much heart and soul there still is here. A thousand bands have used AiC as a template over the past decade, but the result has almost always been bland, corporate rock, so it’s a genuine worry as opener All Secrets Known leaks insipidly out of your speakers, every worst fear confirms as it casually wastes four minutes of album time. Then, suddenly, the real Alice appears. Check My Brain has all the ingredients, droning minor key chords bent just so, hypnotic, repetitive and powerful, the guitars growing, ebbing and flowing as the truly huge chorus stamps itself indelibly into your mind. Cantrell harmonises with Duvall, and while it’s a different sound, it’s a uniquely recognisable one that dances a celebratory jig on the grave of Man In The Box.
There is unfortunately a tendency to rely a little too heavily on Cantrell’s singing here, the full possibilities of Duvall’s voice not being explored, and there’s also the sad tendency that so many reunited bands share to rely too much on sheer heaviness. AiC work best creating atmosphere, the subtle acoustics and interplay between light and dark have always been the group’s greatest strength. When The Sun Rose Again is probably the lightest track here, and it’s a thing of twisted beauty, moving, unearthly harmonies with some fantastic, tasteful soloing from JC.
Finally, there’s a very surprising cameo from a certain Reg Dwight on the title track, and it’s actually an understated little farewell to the former frontman, which manages to avoid mawkishness despite the tinkling ivories, with a strong lyric and some very subtle shading.
This has all the right ingredients, and its tribute to Cantrell and the band’s taste and ability that they pull it off so well, they definitely aren’t pushing any new boundaries here, but hey, that didn’t stop AC/DC excelling on Back In Black, so it would be churlish to complain too strongly. Overall, this is the sound of a great band playing it safe while finding it’s feet again, and fans can tentatively look forward to greater things to come. Dig out that old flannel shirt and enjoy.