Nobody would have faulted them and it certainly wasn’t expected, but on Sept. 29, 2009, Alice in Chains officially began one of the great “second act” stories in rock history by releasing their Black Gives Way to Blue album. How did they get there? Let’s backtrack a little bit.
During the early ‘90s, Alice in Chains emerged as one of the core four of the Seattle scene often credited with the explosion of grunge. The band enjoyed a very successful first part of the decade, with Layne Staley’s vocals often beautifully paired with those of guitarist Jerry Cantrell to deliver some of the ‘90s greatest hits. But by 1996, Staley’s descent into drug addiction curtailed the band’s ability to continue, and they took a small break after their self-titled 1995 album. Staley recorded some new material in 1998 for a hits collection, but the band began to splinter off into side projects afterward. They never getting a chance to continue following Staley’s death from an overdose in 2002.
“He was the focal point, like singers are. So they’d single him out. But the truth was, it was pretty much everybody. I definitely had my hand firmly on the wheel going off the cliff. And the reason we pulled back — you know when you stop when you have two No. 1 records, it’s not really the greatest career move — but we did that because we love each other and we didn’t want to die in public,” admitted drummer Sean Kinney in an interview with Drum Magazine. And I know for a fact in my heart that if we were to continue that I wouldn’t be on the phone right now talking to you. I wouldn’t have made it. I just wouldn’t have.”
Alice in Chains, “Lesson Learned”
With Staley’s death, the band’s story could have easily ended right there, and it appeared as though it had with the band already going on four years since the release of any new material. The band members had moved on with other projects, addressed some of their own personal demons and privately mourned the death of Staley before terminating their recording contract in 2004.
But in 2005, a good cause brought the band members back together. Kinney reached out with the idea of doing a benefit concert for victims of 2004’s tsunami disaster. The living members of the band — Kinney, Cantrell and Mike Inez — were joined onstage by a number of guest vocalists handling the Staley parts for the one-off show. But the reunion gig sparked something and the trio decided they had more to say, eventually pushing to book a tour. They just needed someone to help with the Staley parts.
CBS approached the band about taking part in their Rock Star show, which had helped place new vocalists with INXS and the supergroup Rock Star Supernova through a talent competition, but the band balked at taking part. Instead they found their guy within another special show. Comes With the Fall vocalist William DuVall was one of the special guests joining them to salute fellow Seattle act Heart during the VH1 Decades Rock Live concert in 2006. DuVall had a standing friendship with Cantrell already, as Comes With the Fall had opened for the singer/guitarist during his solo touring five years prior.
DuVall wasn’t initially announced as the new vocalist, with Cantrell stating to MTV in 2006 ahead of their touring, “We’re making it up as we go along. It’s an exploratory thing, and we’re just having fun with it. We’d like to go out and play for the people that supported us and love the music as much as we have all these years. We want to celebrate what we did and the memory of our friend.” However, he did tease, “We have played with some [singers] who can actually bring it and add their own thing to it without being a Layne clone. We’re not interested in stepping on [Staley’s] rich legacy,”
Eventually DuVall emerged from that period, with Cantrell and Kinney revealing that it only took one audition for him to land a role in the band. Sponge’s Vinnie Dombroski and Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland were also bandied about as potential vocalists for the group, but their rehearsal with DuVall put him over the top.
With some touring under their belts, the group continued what had felt right up to that point, deciding to make music again. Kinney told Drum Magazine, “I never called Jerry; he never called me, and said, ‘Hey, let’s get the band back together,’ you know? We had been taking every step extremely cautious and slow, and just doing whatever feels right: If it’s genuine and we’re doing it for genuine reasons and we’re all okay with it then we take a little step. None of us is broke. Nobody needs to be a rock dork, and you know, stroke their ego. I mean, we don’t really operate like that. So as long as it felt good and from the right place and it’s about making music and carrying on.”
“We bonded by being on the road and being onstage,” DuVall said of his entry into the group to the L.A. Times. “But obviously there is an emotional back story that’s pretty extensive for everybody here.” The group started writing for their new album in 2007, and eventually teamed up with producer Nick Raskulinecz in the fall of 2008 to start recording what would be Black Gives Way to Blue — first at Studio 606 in Northridge, California and then finishing at Henson Studios in Los Angeles.
“Being an Alice in Chains fan myself, I know what I want to hear,” says Raskulinecz to the L.A. Times. “It’s a performance record. There’s not any trickery. It’s those guys performing the instruments and singing the parts and doing it over and over and over again until we get it right.”
Before continuing with new music, the band met with Layne Staley’s mother and other family members, seeking their approval to continue. Staley’s mother gave them her blessing. “It was really important that it was okay with them,” said the band’s manager Susan Silver. “There were a lot of baby steps. The first year especially was such a profound healing for everybody.”
One of the major steps taken forward was the emergence of Cantrell as a more prominent voice for the band. While his voice was often heard and sometimes featured during Alice’s first era, it was mainly Staley who was considered to be the lead singer of the band. Speaking with The Aquarian, Cantrell stated, I had to step up quite a bit more than I ever had. [Layne] always gave me a lot of confidence to do that, to sing more lead. And you can hear that as the albums progress, I kind of start growing into that role. I attribute a lot of that to the confidence that Layne gave me. Basically, him just saying, ‘Dude, you gotta fucking sing. These songs are your songs, you write all this fucking great material, and it’s not like I don’t like singing ‘em or whatever, but they’re personal to you, you should fucking sing ‘em.’ (laughs) ‘You can do it.’ I’m always forever grateful to him for that.” DuVall was now the perfect complement to Cantrell as Cantrell had been to Staley.
Still, there was a big hurdle ahead for the band — acceptance from the fans. There had been reunion albums before, but for any number of reasons it was often hard for reunion albums to live up to the expectations. And with Staley no longer around and a largely unknown vocalist joining the ranks, there was reason for concern about what the new era would yield. But the band managed to walk that fine line of being respectful of the legacy and while starting something fresh. Their new material was uniquely its own, but it could also continue to build upon what they began in the ’90s.
“It’s nice to sound like yourself,” Kinney told Billboard. “It’s not really that hard, actually. I know people are blown away that we really sound like ourselves, and I understand the apprehension, but it’s not really that big a stretch to sound the way that you sound.”
Alice in Chains, “A Looking in View”
Fans were first introduced to the new era of the band through “A Looking in View,” a track that was just meant as a preview song, especially given the seven minute-plus runtime. But radio still picked up the track, which was enthusiastically embraced by the fans. It hit No. 12 on the Mainstream Rock chart and was later nominated for a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance.
Cantrell explained of the track, “The song basically speaks to any number of things that keep you balled up inside. A cell of our own making with an unlocked door that we choose to remain in. Focusing our attention inward instead of reaching out to a much larger world. I think this is common to us all. It’s funny how hard we fight to hang on to a bone we can’t pull through a hole in the fence, or how difficult it is to put down the bag of bricks and move on.”
Alice in Chains, “Check My Brain”
The first official single, “Check My Brain,” followed. With sludgy guitars and that signature Alice in Chains harmonic vocal, it connected with listeners in a big way. Cantrell wrote the song as his sarcastic response to eventually taking to Los Angeles after years of living in Seattle. “There’s a certain aspect of sarcasm, I guess, being a guy from Seattle who lives in L.A., ex-drug addict who lives in the belly of the beast and doesn’t partake, and being totally cool with that … It’s like being the bad gambler and living in Vegas. It’s right there. It’s just the irony of that and a little bit of sarcasm. And it’s not putting this place down at all. It’s just kind of like, ‘Wow, you know, check my brain, wow.'”
The track topped both the Mainstream Rock and Alternative Airplay charts and was also recognized with a Grammy Nomination for Best Hard Rock Performance in 2010.
Alice in Chains, “Your Decision”
Pulling back to something a little more somber for their next single, the band released “Your Decision” just ahead of their European touring. While many fans assumed the track was about Staley’s death, the group didn’t speak of a direct connection. DuVall explained of the track to WMMR, “You’ve got to sleep in the bed you make, you know. Things happen, and it’s just funny how one little left or right turn in your life can just totally take you off on a tangent that can be so bizarre and unanticipated, you know.” Kinney added, “I’ve taken a lot of lefts and a lot of rights. I’m sure we all have. You’ve got to deal with it when you there.” Like its predecessor, “Your Decision” also rose to the top of the Mainstream Rock chart, but peaked at No. 4 for Alternative Airplay.
Alice in Chains, “Acid Bubble”
The album also had one more radio song in it with “Lesson Learned,” which hit No. 4 at Mainstream Rock radio, but the album was filled with gems from top to bottom. The dark rocker “Acid Bubble,” the DuVall-led “Last of My Kind” and the angst-ridden “Private Hell” ensured that Black Gives Way to Blue was a top-to-bottom listen, while the solemn title track that closes the album put the perfect stamp on the record.
The “Black Gives Way to Blue” title cut definitely addressed the death of Staley, serving such an emotional catharsis for Cantrell that he became physically ill while recording it. “I got deathly ill,” Cantrell recalled to Guitar World. “I had these mystery migraines, intense physical pain, and I’d even gotten a spinal tap to test for certain things. They never could find anything wrong with me. I felt I was puking up all this undigested grief in losing Layne.”
The song also included a very high profile guest, with Elton John agreeing to lay down piano for the track. Cantrell had met the legend in Las Vegas and decided to give him a call to see if he would be up for the guest appearance. “He totally got it,” Cantrell told Noisecreep. “He was like, ‘I get what the song’s about, man, I think it’s a beautiful sentiment, and I think it’s a beautiful thing, I love it, and I want to play on it.'” Looking back on the track, the singer/guitarist says, “I’m really, really proud of that song. I’m proud of it for a lot of reasons. It’s all about facing up, owning your shit, owning your good stuff and your bad stuff, and continuing to walk forward and live a life.”
By the end of Alice in Chains’ album cycle, apprehensions over the continuation of the band had subsided, the band more than achieved the approval of their fans and critics with a stellar album that sat perfectly alongside their best works from the first era and they had the building block in place to ensure they could compete with the current era of rock’s great bands. Black Gives Way to Blue peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 Album chart and set the band up perfectly to continue their second act.
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