With Black Gives Way to Blue, Alice in Chains proved all the faux-elitists and skeptics completely wrong. They managed to avoid the anticlimactic self-parody that plagues most other bands who "make a comeback". Not only did they stage an awesome comeback, but with the entry of a new lead singer and the passage of time between albums, they forged nothing less than a new incarnation of their legendary sound.
Of course, there are fans who still think that the band should not have gone on without Layne Staley. To be perfectly honest, as long as Alice in Chains keeps putting out good records, I really don't care. Besides, with the exception of "Angry Chair" and most of the self-titled record, Jerry Cantrell was always the creative engine that made the band run. A listen to both their previous album and this year's The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here should make it clear to anyone that the engine is still in fine shape. (Also, I like how the album title reminds me of a classic Bill Hicks routine, something I'm sure they had in mind as well).
With the band's classic heavy riffs and vocal harmonies ever present here, this is definitely an Alice in Chains record. The Devil certainly leans on the more drone-y side of the band's sound and sticks to the same tempo for most of the record. In a lot of ways, this is a much more refined work than Black Gives Way to Blue. Where that album felt more like a long overdue burst of energy, The Devil comes across as a deliberately cohesive album.
While it's good to hear the band get comfortable in their new skin, it also makes for a record that plateaus a few songs in. As a card-carrying AIC fan-boy, I am tempted to simply shower the band with endless praise for anything they do. But it must be said that much of this album comes across a little too consistent, almost tedious. Some of the writing is better than the rest. And it would be nice if the band would use the harmonies more sparingly and let Michael and Jerry belt out more of their own verses, otherwise the songs tend to wash themselves out too much.
The album's strongest moments sit at the endpoints. The band chose their singles well with "Hollow" and "Stone". "Hollow" is a longing, haunting piece, much like "Looking in View" was on Black, with a sorrowful chorus that sticks with you for days even after just one listen. "Stone" is undoubtedly my favorite song on the record, with an excellent, straightforward riff and equally powerful lyrics ("What makes you want to carve your initials in me?" Nice).
Towards the end of the record, the doom-laden crunch of "Phantom Limb" and the plodding grimness of "Hung on a Hook" make for a fantastic finish. Actually, "Hung on a Hook" reminded me a lot of that slow, dirge-y bridge section on "Sickman" if the song was remade with the bands new line-up. With the title track, it seems like Alice in Chains decided to challenge themselves by treading on some unfamiliar subject matter. Most of Alice's lyrics stick to personal, existential topics, but here they decided to launch right into a critique of… young earth creationism. Fair enough. If the band wants to direct their talents at confronting ignorance and superstition, hey, I'm all for it. Though I have to say, their first pass sounds a little forced, but I applaud them for taking on fresh subject matter.
Aside from those highlights, much of the album stays in its lane, without tempting too many tempo or mood changes. I wouldn't say there are any bad songs on this album, and each song has highlights of its own, but I feel the band has gotten a little too comfortable with its formula here. The better moments certainly carry the album enough to make it a good one, if not a great one. But I would hope Alice in Chains will allow their own wings to spread a little more with the next record.
Favorite Songs: "Hollow", "Stone", "Phantom Limb", "Hung on a Hook"