Grunge pioneers Alice In Chains (2.0) have returned with their second album in the ‘William Duvall’ -era, though I’m not even sure you can really call them two different era’s at this point. Unlike Van Halen, the guitar virtuoso is literally the musical mastermind and also a vocalist on key tracks. This is/was Jerry Cantrell’s band and they’re still cranking out his carefully honed version of grunge sludge!
Spoiler alert: there is nothing groundbreaking on this release. If you were expecting anything other than what Jerry and crew can give, perhaps you’ll want to check out now. Opening track ‘Hollow,’ re-invites listeners directly back down into that hole. Droning guitars fill the space and set the mood. Lyrically, the song follows suit with the title featuring a chorus that intones: ‘Silence/so loud/Silence/I can’t tell my up from down.’
‘Pretty Done,’ is a natural progression from the album opener and is a bit more vibrant. Duvall and Cantrell use the dual vocal treatment here. The Inez-Kinney rhythm section phones in an uncharacteristically dull back beat. Cantrell provides solid guitar riff flourishes to keep the track interesting though.
There is no denying the riff power and classic AIC sound of ‘Stone.’ Once again the AIC machine works together in unison to craft a gem out of this little nugget. It opens solidly in the middle for Cantrell’s solo which consistently has one foot set in 80’s metal. Vocally, this one is all Cantrell too, relegating Duvall to a hired gun for the central riff.
What would an AIC album be without one of their signature acoustic ballad’s? Well, rest assured, Uncle Jerry still knows what plays at radio and ‘Voices,’serves as his latest answer at keeping relevant on that end. I can assure you it doesn’t hold a candle to a ‘Rooster,’ or ‘No Excuses,’ but it’s functional.
The title track opens like something off of Facelift with a signature morose mood permeating the track. Like it’s subject matter, which tackles creationism, the track is intentionally devoid of light. In an attempt to probably spark conversation as opposed to controversy, the track’s main lyric ‘the devil put dinosaurs here/Jesus don’t like a queer…’ seemingly falls flat as the song meanders without really stabbing firmly in a direction.
Duvall gets an opportunity once again to trade verses with Cantrell on ‘Lab Monkey.’ It’s a bloated attempt at expressing frustration and uncorking bottled anger. The problem is there’s no lightning and no vitriol in the presentation. It carries on in mid-tempo fashion. ‘Low Ceiling,’ is more of the same. The band seem to be flailing their arms and legs in the swamp-like mire of sounds they’ve created a certain niche for.
‘Breath On A Window,’ attempts to pick up that tempo and feels like three segments of a song built into one. The first part of the track again reminds fans of the basics from Facelift reminiscent of ‘Sunshine.’ The middle of the track mines Dirt-like territory. If one were to take out the tribal drumming in ‘Sickman,’ they’d get a similar dirge-feeling of the guitars here. The latter third is an attempt at re-opening the track into lighter territory. It’s complete 80’s rock n’ roll from the solo to the outro verses of ‘I’d let you go/but you’re always in the way/By the damage done/you’re a star of yesterday.’ One can’t help but wonder if Cantrell’s still pondering the death’s of his former band mate and/or Kurt Cobain.
Another acoustic track, ‘Scalpel,’ wanders into the last third of the album, perhaps with more earnest conviction than ‘Voices.’ Likewise, album highlight ‘Phantom Limb,’ is a seven-minute tour-de-force of riffage that is worthy of being ranked right up there with anything off of the band’s self-titled album which, in my mind, was their finest work to date.
Taking up the final ten minutes of the album are ‘Hung On A Hook,’ which is Duvall’s closest embodiment of late singer Layne Staley’s signature croon to date and ‘Choke,’ a like-able enough acoustic strum of a closer that builds in the choruses but it’s refrain of ‘Choke and eat your bread alone…’ is no ‘Hunger Strike.’
Listen – if AIC were simply to have produced an EP featuring ‘Hollow,’ ‘Pretty Done,’ ‘Stone,’ ‘Breath On A Window,’ ‘Scalpel,’ and ‘Phantom Limb,’ I’d be perfectly happy as both a fan and musical critic in general. The rest of the album mines all too familiar territory and never really states it’s case for any sort of front runner status within the band’s discography. This album is their least satisfying to date, despite the gems mentioned above. A big precursor made by colleagues Soundgarden before they went into the studio to record last year’s King Animal was that they wanted to preserve the legacy their band had established. There’s no question both bands deserve their place in both the grunge era of the 90’s as well as in the pantheon of rock and roll. I just don’t understand how The Devil…. passed Cantrell’s litmus test for quality control, the result of which fifty percent passes in my book.