Alice in Chains is pure sound, dismissing rock and roll theatrics for the dirty and murky sound of their classic material. What distinguished Alice in Chains from other groups of the time was a sincere sense of darkness. You really bought that the band was denying their maker on “Man in the Box” or the rooster was being snuffed. Sure, you knew there was something wrong with Cobain, but he had a little pop music in him to help mask the pain. You hardly bought Eddie Vedder as an impassioned broken man, and who really knows why Soundgarden earned a spot in the “big four?”
Jar of Flies is one of the best albums of the 90’s, and arguably my choice cut for a masterpiece from that often marketed but rarely pinpointed era of “grunge.” Jar of Flies is sincerely puzzling, a complex tapestry of stunning acoustics. So, when Alice in Chains buzzes and simmers into “No Excuses,” the tension and the anxiety is felt through every string. Though it may not be Layne Staley singing the words in their current live show, the words themselves are the same- the darkness is ever-so-ripe.
The group is perplexed with both a curse and a blessing. They are in a prime situation where they play their “hits” alongside their new tracks. But, both the band and the majority of the fans know that their big songs have an immortal quality to them. Thankfully, Alice in Chains understands this, and has never tried to directly replicate their own sound. 2009’s Black Gives Way to Blue is more than a peculiar return from a beloved band. It’s a seismic record, a journey of darkness not unlike Dirt from 25 years earlier but still a new entity. The band represents it well enough in their current show, unloading “Check My Brain” (the album’s de-facto single) and the moody “Your Decision” quite regularly. Just to be clear: Black Gives Way to Blue is a legitimately fantastic record, and the songs explode live.
The group took their new incarnation even further with The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, a massive record with a drawling sense of evil in its lines, and a legitimate effort to add doom metal to the mix. It is, truly, the first time since the acquisition of William DuVall has the band truly sounded anew. The darkness is intact, as these songs sound eerie and dense. It’s a different palette.
It is the hits people love to their bones. The group has their entire oeuvre live, considering the likes of “Rooster,” “Them Bones,” and “Would?” all appear. Out of their major staples, they don’t miss any. This should give fans the patience to let new tracks, such as “Hollow,” ring for some time.
Alice in Chains may forever be eternally under the overcast of the group’s original singer, Layne Staley’s, whose passing rivals Cobain in musical legacy-creation. But, in 2016, the group has a fire that can’t go out. Why not just quit? The current incarnation has two of the band’s original 1987 members, and one who has been in the band since the early 90’s, and contributed to their landmark self-titled album. These guys are just as much a deserved part of Alice in Chains as Staley ever was.
Yes, the group will be dismissed by many due to circumstances and good old-fashioned loyal nostalgia. But, Alice in Chains is not doing the same thing they were doing in 1993. Their current incarnation is an unlit room, coated on all sides by an impenetrable wall, where the heavy metal can wallow. The difference between the Layne Staley era and this latest incarnation is that Staley had demons he succumbed to. Yet, after attending their latest show, the demons may still be there and watching the crowd bend to the band’s will, those demons are still hungry.