Alice in Chains

Sep 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Bud Scoppa



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In Henson Studios, where the mixing and some tracking were done, are (L-R) drummer Sean Kinney, bassist Mike Inez, producer Nick Raskulinecz, guitarist/vocalist Jerry Cantrell, guitarist/vocalist William DuVall

In Henson Studios, where the mixing and some tracking were done, are (L-R) drummer Sean Kinney, bassist Mike Inez, producer Nick Raskulinecz, guitarist/vocalist Jerry Cantrell, guitarist/vocalist William DuVall

In 1990, Seattle-based Alice in Chains were opening for Van Halen, Ozzy Osbourne and even Poison, playing a post-punk/metal hybrid that emphasized bitter truths and sludgy tempos, seemingly turning singer Layne Staley's battle with heroin addiction into a theme. After Nirvana and Pearl Jam put Seattle on the alt-rock map, Alice in Chains got a song on the soundtrack to the 1992 Cameron Crowe film Singles, cementing the band's grunge cred (to the sneering indifference of the members) and setting the stage for Dirt — released that same year — a rough beast slouching toward the top of the charts and eventual status as an art-metal landmark. By '95, when the band released its self-titled third album, Staley's addiction had caused them to stop touring, and the lack of a follow-up studio LP suggested that the singer's demons were getting the best of him. Staley succumbed to a fatal overdose of heroin and cocaine in 2002.

When the word spread last year that the surviving members — guitarist/singer Jerry Cantrell, drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Inez — were making an Alice in Chains record with another singer, the news was greeted with disbelief by the band's obsessive fans, who believed the group had died with Staley. “I personally thrive on shit like that,” says Cantrell. “If you tell us we can't do something, that just gives us more fuel to achieve it.”

The new album, Black Gives Way to Blue, the band's first studio album in 14 years, is a dark, lush, engulfing and ultimately uplifting work that wrestles with absence as both a tribute and a challenge. It introduces vocalist and guitar player William DuVall, 42, who's been playing off and on with Cantrell since 2000. “William is not Layne, and he's not trying to be,” Cantrell asserts. “But there are some similarities, which work for the band. Even though the personnel is different, it's evolved in a natural way.”

Says Kinney: “Layne's an impossible person to replace, so that wasn't even a thought. Will doesn't come in and try to do a karaoke version of the past — he puts his all into it and makes it his own; he's a real talented guy and he fits in well. It takes awhile to find your place in a pre-existing dynamic, but he did, and the dynamic changed a little because it had to — one of us isn't here anymore. But Will had it — the parts, the chops, the whole thing. He brought himself — he does what he does and it works.”

In early 2004, Kinney suggested to Cantrell and Inez that they do an Alice in Chains one-off to raise money for tsunami relief, and that became the first of a series of “little steps” taken by the band. “Every time something came along, we'd sit down and evaluate it and do whatever we were comfortable with,” says the drummer. Eventually, those steps led to a pair of 2007 tours with Velvet Revolver, with DuVall singing Staley's parts.

Cantrell picks up the thread: “During those last couple of years of playing the old material, we'd jam pretty much every day. Cool riffs would come up, we'd record them and, by the time we got home from a tour, we'd have a disc full of ideas. I've got a little Pro Tools setup in my guest bedroom, and I'd work on those things in the downtime, putting stuff together. We did a makeup show with Velvet Revolver in November of 2007, and I started working about a week after that. I spent from November to March writing, passing ideas back and forth on the Internet, and once we had a body of work that we wanted to pursue and see what it turned into for real, then we started thinking about taking the next step. Dave Grohl's always been a good friend and a big supporter of us going through this process, and he's got a great studio that he built out in the Valley, Studio 606. His partner is Nick Raskulinecz, who produced the last three Foo Fighters records. Dave says, ‘Man, you gotta come work at the studio and use Nick — you guys would be great together.”

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