Thursday, May 30, 2013

album review: 'the devil put dinosaurs here' by alice in chains

What do you do when a member of your band dies?

It's a question that no act ever wants to consider, but it's a sad fact of life, and being a rock star seems to only shorten that brief span between the cradle and the grave. The hard partying lifestyle, the drug abuse, the bouts of suicidal depression, any one could be enough to kill a musician, and while those musicians are often deified, the question of if/how the band can carry on is an entirely different minefield. Some acts fall apart, never to reform, mostly because the man/woman who died was near the nucleus of the group (Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis of Joy Division, John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, Freddie Mercury, the list can easily go on). Some acts carry on, and for better or for worse the replacement member will always be compared with the original (Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, Bon Scott of AC/DC, Cliff Burton of Metallica). Unfortunately, many of these talented musicians to replace their fallen originals never really rise out of the shadows (obviously in the list I provided above, all three are highly arguable exceptions).

So thus it proved very interesting when Alice In Chains announced announced their fourth studio album of new material to be released in 2009, featuring the replacement of late lead singer Layne Staley with singer William DuVall. This hadn't the first time a band member had left/been replaced (bassist Mike Inez had replaced Mike Starr in 1994), but Layne Staley had left a long shadow thanks to his role as one of the leading figures of grunge and for his excellent voice. And while DuVall had done a bit of touring with the band, there were many questions whether or not he'd be able to fill Staley's shoes.

Fortunately for everyone, Alice In Chains' fourth album Black Gives Way To Blue turned out to be pretty excellent, and fans embraced DuVall's vocals like AC/DC fans did with Brian Johnson's after Bon Scott's passing. It was the sort of reception that you don't typically see in the hard rock/metal scene, and it spoke of good things to come. And in 2011, fan interest was piqued when it was announced a follow-up album was on the way.

Now, I'll admit straight out of the gate that grunge isn't typically my thing. Sure, I like Pearl Jam and Nirvana and the occasional Bush or Soundgarden song, but I wouldn't exactly qualify it as a genre of choice for me. I tend to feel the same about 'traditional' heavy metal like Metallica and Slayer and Megadeth - I can definitely acknowledge quality when I hear it, but the genre's never really caught my fancy. I mention this because my liking for Alice In Chains significantly more than the majority of their contemporaries on both sides of grunge and heavy metal has always struck me as a bit odd. But really, I think it comes down to a few factors: a strong hook where the guitars and bass complimented the singing, vocals I could actually understand (yes, i can tolerate dirty vocals and growling, but I do like being able to make out the lyrics), and subject matter that was willing to be serious without devolving into undefined rage. Ultimately, that's why I think I like Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains a bit more than their contemporaries, and it helps both bands had a gift for minor key melodies and a bigness of sound that definitely worked to their advantage.

All of these factors are on display with Black Gives Way To Blue, and as a album about dealing with grief and the darkness of the past, Alice In Chains returned in the best possible way by acknowledging and accepting the past while bringing a new singer to the table. And boy, did it pay dividends, with critical acclaim, solid sales, and general fan acceptance, even though it was their heaviest album yet. Some critics even compared some of the riffs to doom metal, and while I wouldn't go that far in the comparison, Black Gives Way To Blue was an album where that tone fits surprisingly well. It's an album about grief and moving on from suffering, and thus it made sense that it was heavier and darker.

So what do I think of Alice In Chains' follow-up, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, coming into a landscape where post-grunge is near-extinct and indie rock now rules the shelves?

Well, Alice In Chains fans, you can put down your pitchforks because this album is indeed good. But I wouldn't call it great, mostly due to a few little problem that just stood out enough to get on my nerves. I can definitely say, however, that if you're a die-hard Alice In Chains fan, you're going to love this album, because it's probably the purest representation of Alice In Chains' output I've ever seen - or at least, what the general public considers an Alice In Chains album.

See, here's the thing: there are certain acts that have a very distinctive sound compared to their peers, a sound that's iconic about the band and one that you can use to tell their material apart from anything else. This is most common, in my view, with rock bands - due to guitar tuning and vocal styles and even specific types of drumming, you can immediately tell some acts apart by their sound, which is emblematic of the band. Now this is neither a good or bad thing - some acts do so much genre-hopping that it can be difficult to nail down a specific 'sound' for these acts - but it definitely helps your act stand out from the crowd of imitators. And this is definitely the case with Alice In Chains - if you put on an Alice In Chains song, I'll definitely be able to distinguish it from a Nirvana or Soundgarden or Pearl Jam song, and that's not without being a huge fan of any of those acts. 

But listening through The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, I ran into the first problem: even though I like the Alice In Chains 'sound' and this album is basically that sound in a nutshell, there isn't a lot of innovation within that context. There aren't a lot of driving, memorable hooks that stand out amid the rest, and while there are the occasionally impressive guitar solo, there's a lot of this album that sounds the same. And frankly, that strikes me as a bit of a missed opportunity - sure, it's not a bad thing to stick with what you know, but I would have liked to see steps outside of the comfort zone.

Fortunately, the place where we do see Alice In Chains try something new is the lyrics, and I've got to be honest, I was really excited when I saw the title of this album. I was hoping for a political polemic against creationist, or maybe some issue-oriented material that might spur conversation. And while we definitely get some of that (in the title track and in 'Lab Monkey', a surprisingly uncomfortable song written from the perspective of an animal used for testing), I can't help again that Alice In Chains missed a bit of an opportunity to try something that isn't typically explored in their genre. Instead, we get a lot of the songs that Alice In Chains can do in their sleep - dark, brooding songs about being trapped or morose or damaged. And sure, none of these songs are bad - in fact, I'd argue most of them are quite solid, with the standouts being 'Voices' and 'Lab Monkey' - but they're material I've heard before.

But the real problem with this album is something that's tougher to quantify, and I'm not sure it's as much of a problem as it is a feature (although it definitely didn't work for me). Namely, that this album is nearly seventy minutes for 12 songs, and it feels at least that long. Coupled with the slow tempo, the pounding bass, the minor keys, and the generally depressing atmosphere and lyrics, this album is a ponderous piece to get through, feeling heavy and draining. I don't advise trying to listening through it all in one take, and particularly considering so much of the material adheres to Alice In Chains' signature sound, it's an album that feels like it's going on forever.

But then again, evoking that feeling might be part of the point. Considering how many of Alice In Chains' songs focus on depressing situations and emotions, the longer songs do intensify the feelings the material is trying to create. It isn't just that you're feeling trapped or morose, but that there isn't much hope to get away from those feelings, that they're never going to leave, that they're as solid and immovable as the rocky wasteland where the devils buried those dinosaurs. in fact, the symbolism does make a bit of sense here - the 'devils' (our negative thoughts and desires) didn't just place the dinosaurs (symbolic of problems, the proto-elephants in the room, so to speak) here. No, they buried them, placed them beneath tons of rock and stone that have to be excavated free. So one could argue that by making the songs so long, the album becomes a metaphor for the chore it becomes to extract and deal with such issues. Now I'll admit I'm definitely overthinking this, but it does explains the weighty atmosphere of the material. But on the other hand, I get the feeling the album could have aptly encapsulated that theme without the listening becoming a little tedious, and I think some of the songs could have used an editor to trim them down.

All of that said, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is a perfectly serviceable and pretty damn solid Alice In Chains album, and if you're a fan, you'll definitely like it. I don't think it's quite as good as Black Gives Way To Blue (mostly due to the fact that album had a stronger emotional core to it and a bit more thematic cohesion), but it's definitely not a bad album and you'll probably enjoy it.

And I will say this: for all the acts trying to reinvent themselves or leap on the nearest trend, it's nice to see an act simply doing what they do best, and doing it well.

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