Friday, May 31, 2013
2009's Black Gives Way to Blue was one of the greatest against-the-odds comeback records of all time. Few bands could regroup and recover after losing a singer of Layne Staley's calibre. But Alice in Chains did, and the results were stunning.
The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is the second outing of the post-Staley era, and I had pretty high expectations. Not just because it's immediate predecessor was so good, but also because all the press I read around this album just got me even more excited. Sure, most albums from big-name bands get plenty of pre-release hype from the mags, but the write-ups in Metal Hammer and Revolver were loaded with wry and incisive quips from guitarist/songwriter/singer Jerry Cantrell and the band spent little time on self promotion.
Those stories also reveal the source of the album's cryptic title. A fairly mad theory from certain branches of Christianity states that dinosaur bones and fossils were planted on the earth by the devil to make us all believe in the theory of evolution and so on. Cantrell is quick to point out that most religions have a pretty sensible and decent moral core, but somehow most religions also seem to end up with people doing and saying some fairly crazy and sometimes horrible things in the name of religion.
While the social outlook is interesting, it's even more interesting coming from a band like Alice in Chains whose songs to date have been almost exclusively founded in their own personal and collective struggles. So, between the band's change in perspective, the interesting things they all had to say, and the momentum they've had since their reformation, you could colour me pretty excited for this one.
The album's opening three tracks are a pretty clear reminder that few bands do heavy, sludgy rock as well as AiC. Hollow's catchy opening riff grinds along like a bulldozer in 6/4 time, with the chorus providing melodic relief. Pretty Done recaptures the particularly eerie sound of tracks like Brush Away and Head Creeps with the trademark dual vocals of William DuVall and Cantrell laid over a swirling, droning refrain - the result sounding like the soundtrack to being trapped in a sandstorm. Stone opens with an ominous bassline, adding a wonderfully bent guitar lick over the top for one of the album's highlights.
Things then take a slightly different turn with Voices, an acoustically-led, seemingly upbeat and cheerful number juxtaposed with some altogether more sinister lyrics:
Voices in my head
Does yours say what mine says?"
After a fairly broody sort of an intro and verse, the title track is where Cantrell really starts pulling the lyrical punches he hinted at:
"The devil put dinosaurs here
Jesus don't like a queer
The devil put dinosaurs here
No problem with faith just fear"
It's a good listen, but it feels an idea or two short of its 6:39 length.
Lab Monkey meanders along at a similar tempo initially, but takes things up a step when it unleashes itself in the chorus and bridge, and also features a great talk-box guitar solo. Somehow it also manages to sounds like it's in a weirder time signature than what it actually is.
Low Ceiling is a mid-tempo groover with a very catchy chorus, while Breath On a Window is one of the album's highlights. It starts as an uptempo, positive number, but changes tack dramatically through a rather uneasy-sounding bridge, before another tempo change lurches us into an outro that manages to be simultaneously grooving and melancholic, with another classic Cantrell lyric - "I'd let you go, but you're always in the way".
Following that is another great track - Scalpel - which has a sense of melody reminiscent of the exceptional Lesson Learned and is another reminder of just how good a songwriter Jerry Cantrell is.
The album hits an undisputed peak with Phantom Limb, a 7-minute epic which features essentially everything we love about AIC. A jackhammer main riff and eerie dual vocals power the verses, building to a cleverly-constructed two-part chorus - initially explosive and soaring, before shifting to brooding and withdrawn, with DuVall taking the vocal lead and perfectly delivering the line "I'll just haunt you like a phantom limb...". It's a brilliant track which never ceases to send chills down my spine during the chorus as well as during Cantrell's well-crafted solo. It ends with a fitting outro - guitar drone and buzz over the top of a repeated kick-drum designed to mimic a heartbeat.
In my opinion that was exactly the point to end the album - it's such a brilliant way to close a brilliant track which the album has built towards. The final two tracks Hung On A Hook and Choke are competent but don't really offer anything different to the rest of the album and feel a little anti-climactic after Phantom Limb. The only sort of track that probably would've worked there would've been something really mellow that offered a major contrast - like the title track which closes Black Gives Way to Blue or Gone, which closes the first disc to Cantrell's criminally-overlooked solo record Degradation Trip.
Overall the album is a lot denser than Black Gives Way to Blue was and doesn't feature the same sort of overt cathartic moments like the dramatic about-face of Acid Bubble. It's probably not as immediately accessible, but it's certainly a grower with some great details and subtle touches once you're past the in-your-face hit of the first three tracks.
The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is another reminder that Alice in Chains is really the only band that sounds like Alice in Chains, and that rock fans are damn lucky these guys gave it a second go. It's not perfect, but it's still a fine listen.