ALICE IN CHAINS, London 2013: A Testament to how powerful music can be…

Posted: November 14, 2013 in MUSIC
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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Over 20 years since the earth-shattering Dirt album, Alice in Chains are not only still going strong, but may just be the greatest band on the face of the earth…

It still seems extraordinary to me how much incredibly powerful rock music was made in the nineties, not just coming out of the Seattle scene, but all across the broader alternative landscape (everything from bands like Smashing Pumpkins and the Chilli Peppers in the US to Manic Street Preachers and Radiohead in the UK, and then solo artists like PJ Harvey and Tori Amos, with everything in-between). The depth and the enduring power of some of the music made at that time makes one wonder if there was something in the water; certainly there hasn’t been anything like it since – moments of scattered greatness and revelation here and there, yes, but not anything like that degree of brilliant music being made by a range of brilliant artists in a short space of time.

What came out of Seattle specifically was the center of that creative catherine wheel; something incredible, something beautiful, happened. And for those for whom that music resonated, its reverberations are felt to this day, those moments, those albums and that music deeply embedded into our consciousness, into our souls, even into our sense of self. When I think of my own inner being, my own inner psyche, I can’t remove the likes of Nirvana‘s ‘In Utero‘ and ‘Nevermind‘ or Alice in Chains‘ ‘Dirt‘ and ‘Jar of Flies‘ from it, along with the various other cultural treasures and works of art that have shaped so central a part of my life.

Music, when it’s as powerful as Alice in Chains got on those albums, doesn’t merely act as a soundtrack, but becomes a part of you, becomes something much more than it was even intended to be.

And then you become precious about it. As a teenager, when I listened to those albums and marvelled at Layne Staley‘s voice and at his and Jerry Cantrell‘s harmonies and lyrics, I knew his voice and those sounds would be with me forever. Those moments in life are vivid; those moments of initial resonance when you just know you’re at the beginning of a life-long relationship.

Cut forward then to the present day and there’s been a lot of negative reaction to new singer William DuVall stepping into Layne Staley’s unfillable shoes; admittedly I wasn’t all too keen a few years ago on the idea of AiC reforming with a new singer. Although I wasn’t among the more aggressive opponents to it, I was for a while a little disenfranchised with it, being an absolute adorer of Layne Staley, whose death in 2002 frankly devastated me. And though I was super excited to hear ‘Black Gives Way to Blue‘ (a superb album in every sense, so long as you stop trying to compare it to ‘Dirt‘ or ‘Alice In Chains‘) a few years ago and really liked the album, I still felt like the original magic was gone and could never be reclaimed. To some extent that’s still my feeling, as far as recorded material goes.

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But having seen Alice in Chains live this weekend, I’ve changed my mind completely about DuVall and about the new Alice In Chains. Put simply, they were awesome; one of the best, most gratifying experiences of my life. Their live repertoire is proof enough of why their continuation is wholly justified and in the best interests of music itself; any band that has a back catalogue as extraordinary as theirs has every business being around, touring, keeping those songs alive and playing them around the world – not only to their existing fanbase, but to a whole new audience.

The idea of music like ‘Would?‘, ‘Sickman‘ or ‘Rotten Apple‘ (which I consider the finest piece of music I have ever heard), for example, not being played would amount to a tragic waste, particularly in a world where we lament the cutting short of Nirvana or the loss of Shannon Hoon and Blind Melon, to name two examples.

Of course, there’s no replacing Layne Staley; that guy is a legend, a true great, who I miss just as much today as I did in 2002. But it isn’t about replacing him; his voice, his contribution to the band and to music is there on record, imperishable, for all time to come. Having someone else sing those songs on stage isn’t a violation; Layne’s legacy is inviolable. Music, once recorded and once disseminated into people’s lives, into people’s mindscapes, is inviolable. DuVall isn’t there to replace Staley or even to try to recreate his presence; he is merely enabling the band to continue making music on the one hand and to continue performing their existing music to the masses on the other. And thank fuck for that!

DuVall also is a quality frontman in his own right and is a singer and personality grounded in the alt/hardcore scene, even pre-grunge, and can hardly be viewed as someone who’s just shown up and jumped on stage; this guy was there in the heart of what was going on even before Mother Love Bone was going on, for fuck’s sake.

The distinctive Cantrell/Staley dynamic that characterized all of Alice in Chains’ nineties material can’t be properly replicated, but its style is continued with the Cantrell/DuVall duality/harmony and that’s still an excellent dynamic, particularly in live shows, but also on record too (listen to ‘Check My Brain‘ or ‘When the Sun Rose Again‘, for examples of how well it still works). The London show, as I said, was an utter K.O; standards like ‘Them Bones’, ‘Got Me Wrong‘ and ‘Would‘ sound as awesome as they always have, like old friends gone too long, but newer material like ‘Check My Brain‘ and ‘Hollow‘ sound superb live in their own right. But it’s the softer, more bittersweet classics – in this case, ‘Down In A Hole‘ and ‘Rooster‘ – that really give you the goosebumps.

For me, the greatest moment of that show, the moment that will be with me forever, was the inclusion in the set of ‘Rotten Apple‘; a song that I have considered to be possibly my all-time favorite piece of music since I heard it about fifteen years ago, but a song that is rarely included in a set-list, being a slow and awkward number to perform live and not being one of the band’s better-known tracks. That song – check it out; ‘Rotten Apple‘ – is a testament to just how powerful music can be. The fact that a single night’s set-list could be as rich as it was and yet still leave me thinking about all the great songs that weren’t included (‘Sludge Factory’, ‘God Damn’, ‘Over Now’, ‘Hate To Feel’, ‘Breath On A Window‘, the list is endless) is testament to how great a band Alice in Chains is, how rich its legacy is, and how important it is that AiC are still here, still doing it, even 20 years after ‘Dirt‘.

No, they are never going to make anything as mindblowing as ‘Dirt‘, the Jar of Flies EP or their eponymous 1995 album, but it’s pointless to expect otherwise. The earth-shattering stuff always happens early; and then a band or artist matures, evolves, grows.

The two post-Layne albums, ‘Black Gives Way to Blue‘ and this year’s ‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here‘ are substantial, excellent pieces of work that leave almost everything else in the modern rock music scene looking second-rate.

This continuing journey, coupled with the band’s power-house live-show experience, makes me grateful, glad, that there are still Alice in Chains albums to look forward to and shows to go to. I’m not sure there’s a better band in the world today…

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Comments
  1. Noel says:

    Great review/spirited defence of AIC! Nice one. You can’t replace Layne but the great thing about William Duvall is he isn’t trying to. He’s his own man. I love his energy. I even like his little dance moves (that some critics seem to hate). His voice is excellent live too and he’s hugely underated guitarist. They’re an excellent live band. It’s a shame some people won’t give them a chance. They’re really missing out. Is it the same? No! That’s the whole point, isn’t it? Layne’s legacy is there forever. Nothing has been tarnished. They’ve just added another chapter. Nothing has been taken away. I can still listen to Dirt or Jar of Flies and I can listen to the last two albums. It’s all good.

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  2. Yeah, that’s exactly it – adding another chapter. The same people who complain about DuVall also complain about the lack of great bands in the world today – well, DuVall being there means we still have a great band in the world in the form of Alice in Chains. Though to be honest, I do find the dancing around and stuff a bit much…. but I suppose Layne was more of a static, intense/inward type of frontman than DuVall. And hey, he’s excited – who wouldn’t be?

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  3. Noel says:

    To be fair, you’re probably right about the dancing(!). But I just like the fact that he’s doing his own thing. If they had a singer trying to look and act like Layne then I think that would be worse. Duvall just comes across as a genuine guy. It’s weird because the music is always seen as dark and depressing (which it can be… ) but it’s also quite euphoric and uplifting too (if you feel it…). Put it this way, I’ve never seen anyone leaving an AIC show looking depressed…

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