Moving forward is a grueling task, especially for a rock band attempting to overcome the death of its lead singer. The creative process is limited to, somehow, honoring the fallen voice while learning how to speak anew.
For Alice in Chains, this meant a hiatus that extended beyond a decade and ended with the inclusion of an outsider to grip the same microphone that had once been Layne Staley’s paintbrush.
"Black Gives Way To Blue," the band’s first original release since their 1995 self-titled album, is a phoenix-like memorial for Staley, who died of a drug overdose in 2002. The album scatters flashes of future brilliance while constantly reminding listeners that turmoil was the main inspiration.
Immediately, on the opening track "All Secrets Known," the album feels like a warm memory of home with a guitar riff that screams, "this is Alice in Chains." As the band quickly throws in its signature instrumentals –an overpowering bass line by Mike Inez and drumming by Sean Kinney that blends into the background as the song’s pulse— the listener is then set up for the vocal shock; William DuVall, formerly of the band Comes with the Fall, and not Staley, is the band’s frontman.
The opener is a statement of progression, thrice repeating the lyric "There’s no going back to the place we started from." "Check My Brain" follows as the second track and stands out as the hit of the album. Musically, it’s reminiscent of "Sea of Sorrow," from the 1990 album "Facelift," and lyrically the song is one of the catchier tracks in the band’s library.
The first two tracks use DuVall, both as a guitarist and as a singer, conservatively, suggesting that the band is uncomfortable in trusting him with sensitive songs. But, on the tracks "Last Of My Kind" and "A Looking In View" the group includes him into the writing process, which shows that his influence will incorporate a faster, modern punk vibe. Vocally, DuVall shines on these tracks and brings a sound that feels influenced by a combination of the bands Tool and Velvet Revolver.
Although conservative, the album is flawless in both technique and message. Unsurprisingly, the tracks that use Jerry Cantrell as a duet partner for DuVall and as an acoustic guitarist (notably on "Your Decision" and "When The Sun Rose Again") feel like staples that deserved Staley’s voice, but force fans to accept the band’s new sound.
The album concludes with a self-titled track that features Elton John on piano. His presence feels more like a marketing ploy or as a tribunal, because the song hardly calls for a talent of his caliber. Regardless, the piano is an excellent touch to a fitting conclusion. The song is a direct tribute to Staley, ending with the lines "Lay down black gives way to blue / Lay down I remember you," and then eerily concluding all at once. The song metaphorically represents the album and the band’s direction: moving forward, but forgetting nothing. The abrupt ending leaves the listener wanting more; more from the song; more from the album; more from Staley.
Alice in Chains succeeded in their comeback with "Black Gives Way To Blue." The album is fresh, but reminiscent; inventive, but traditional; and finally ready to move on as a new sound, while rightfully mourning the last.