[27 May 2013]
There’s hardly been a more controversial rock reunion in recent memory than that of Alice in Chains. Naysayers condemned the idea, the very notion that the Seattle group could continue without deceased lead singer Layne Staley seeming sacrilegious in many ways. But those naysayers be damned; the group handled their resurrection with remarkable dignity, letting their reunification happen organically over several years, never forcing the matter as some cash grab. And now, with The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, Alice in Chains again prove they are sticking around for the long haul and will keep writing new chapters in their story.
As the group’s second LP since their reformation, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is far more self-assured than its predecessor, 2009’s Black Gives Way to Blue. Solid but not great, that album accomplished its primary goal of reasserting the band’s name. It’s the definition of a transition record, the band simultaneously finding its footing and introducing fans to new member William DuVall while having to grapple with, and pay homage to, Staley’s legacy. As such, Staley’s specter couldn’t help but loom large over the piece. Arriving on the other end of Black Gives Way to Blue’s success, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here finds Alice in Chains with the pressure off, their new dynamics established and Staley’s ghost laid to rest.
The record starts strong with “Hollow”, showcasing all the Alice in Chains hallmarks—the obelisk-shaking riffs, the tectonic rumble of churning rhythms, self-lacerating lyrics and layers of soaring vocals at both the forefront and in the background like a Gregorian-chanting choir. As always, the band’s music is tailor-made for accompanying Dante on his trek through the Inferno, the sweetly venomous harmonies those of the fallen angels in the pit. While the verses crawl at a molasses-pace, a shift in time signature arrives at the pre-chorus and switches again at the refrain so that when DuVall and Jerry Cantrell howl in unison “Silence, so loud / Silence, I can’t tell my up from down”, it simulates a sensation of transcendence, of breaking from confinement.
While bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney once again show they are one of the heaviest and tightest rhythm sections in hard rock, the highlights of the record are of course Cantrell’s guitar acrobatics and Alice in Chains’ patented harmonies. Cantrell’s guitar playing remains unmistakable, giving a melodious bedrock to the concrete mixture above, and his solos pepper the record. DuVall noticeably has an increased presence here than he did on Black Gives Way to Blue, on which only one song featured him singing lead throughout. With DuVall given some heavier lifting duties, he displays how his higher, more nasally vocals mesh just as well with Cantrell’s low end as Staley’s did. Still, as was made clear on their last album, Cantrell is the primary singer of the revamped Alice in Chains, he assuming Staley’s role and DuVall conversely filling Cantrell’s previous position regarding microphone duties. It’s a wise method they employ, and it is further testament to the band’s integrity when they simply could have hired any Staley soundalike as a full-fledged lead singer.
Song for song, this may be the best full-length Alice in Chains has released since Dirt, getting stronger as it progresses. “Stone” is all chainsaw guitar bolstered by an Inez bassline that undulates like a whale’s tale under a sea of oil, Cantrell and DuVall’s voices coming from opposite ends in the verses then merging in the chorus. The title track, a satirical lambasting of fundamental Christianity, is one of the band’s most atmospheric tunes to date, sounding like it was recorded in a cathedral dungeon and saturated with a feeling of paranoia. “The devil put dinosaurs here / Jesus don’t like a queer”, Cantrell and DuVall intone with palpable dread, one of many choruses with a serpentine hook that is sure to repeat in the listener’s head long after the disc stops spinning. Cantrell’s talent as a lyricist and songwriter is to credit for such a lasting impact, his claustrophobia in “Low Ceiling” conveyed with the musing of, “I’m too big or this room’s too small / Why’s my ceiling another’s floor?” Elsewhere, on “Breath on a Window”, a driving tempo abruptly swirls into a hypnotic outro, Cantrell stating over and over, “I’d let you go / But you’re always in the way / I’m the damage done / Your scar of yesterday.” Such fingerpointing vitriol recurs throughout, most notably on “Phantom Limb” (who would’ve thought Alice in Chains and the Shins would share a song title?), which wraps with the muddy water distortion threat of, “Gonna wear you like a second skin / I’ll haunt you like a phantom limb.”
At times, though, Cantrell does his overplay his hand, some of the nihilism bordering on overwrought melodrama. This pitfall is naturally going to increase as the band ages, the accounts of depression being almost nostalgic and seeming formulaic. At the same time, no one goes to Alice In Chains looking for anything in the same realm as happy music, but this lyrical fixation on the oppressively dour can be a limitation.
The acoustic flourishes Alice in Chains were highly regarded for in their ‘90s heyday remain intact here as well. As with every Alice in Chains LP since Dirt, the fourth track (“Voices”) marks the first appearance of acoustic plucking. Although “Voices” is certain to be a single, the finest acoustic number here is “Scalpel”. Cantrell has dabbled with country music since his first solo outing, but this is his most unapologetic foray into the form under the Alice in Chains banner, a steel guitar lending the piece a weary quality. “Choke”, a song which due to its scope could only be an album closer, amalgamates acoustic and electric instrumentation to end the record with a melancholic tone, and suitably wraps the piece overall with a sense of closure.
What The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here leaves one with is a feeling that Alice in Chains have returned to the top of their game, confident and back on firm ground. The sludge factory is open again, and modern rock music is all the better for it.