The following is true: I just hit a deer. I just totalled my car. I’m stuck in a little town alone and every hotel room in this town is booked up. The midnight-shift dude at the Comfort Inn is into grungy guitar rock and he’s nice enough to let me hide in the lounge, hidden out of sight from the main doors, so long as I don’t fall asleep. He gave me some coffee pucks to run through the coffee-puck machine, to keep me awake. Nice guy. He’s rocking out to some awful cover of Tears for Fears’ “Shout”.
So stay up I will, and listen to grunge rock I will. Which got me thinking of the fact that Alice in Chains has a new record.
Alice in Chains, if you don’t know, were one of the big grunge rock acts of the ’90s. In order of their reverence, there was Kurd Cobain and Nirvana, there was Veddie and Pearl Jam, and—before Soundgarden captured all our attentions and took their rightful place with the near-perfect Superunknown—there was Layne and Alice in Chains. Gifted with a singular voice and a plainness in his lyrics that made Kurdtdtdt and Veddie’s words seem opaque and avoidant, Layne Staley sang frankly about his use of hard drugs and the lifestyle that came with it. He wasn’t asking for pity or for judgement, only putting words to what he saw in front of him. Combined with a soaring vocal range, a strange mix of growl and whine, and most importantly for teenaged-me, constant interesting harmonies with band-leader Jerry Cantrell, Layne’s singing always stood out to me in my formative years. In retrospect, many 90s bands were kind of shit, but Cobain and Vedder and Staley were all objectively excellent singers.
But when you sing about heroin and you live a life of using heroin, eventually the heroin wins. Alice in Chains recorded three LPs, two EPs, and an MTV Unplugged before the band decided, for reasons never I’ve never seen discussed, to go on an indefinite hiatus. A few years after that Layne died from a speedball overdose.
Jerry Cantrell, the primary songwriter and guitarist and melody-writer and general brains behind the Alice in Chains operation, toured as a solo act for a while. But eventually, the band wanted to play together again, to have fun, to keep going. They brought in a new guy, another very good singer, but everything I’ve heard from their output, he is always in the background, second always to Cantrell, the founding member. Cantrell’s voice is thoroughly fine but no standout; it’s a perfect harmonizing voice, but maybe not meant to take the lead.
So in a different configuration with a different band member and a different singing arrangement, Alice in Chains started making music again. Unlike other revival acts, they kept putting out records, touring, treating themselves as a real band and not some reunion or celebration-of-what-was. But it wasn’t for me anymore. I had loved their weird scales and punishing guitars and amazing harmonies as a kid, but as an adult I found their songs unnecessarily long (so many third verses and choruses!) and without any interesting movement. So I lost the thread on my teenage-favourite band and let them do their thing without my judgement.
But then I hit a deer and totalled my car and stranded myself in a town until the first ferry arrives at 6:30am. It’s 2:06am. I’ve been thinking about doing a review for Fraudsters (Mark’s got a bunch coming up and so I want to at least try to keep up). So let’s listen to the new Alice in Chains record, Rainier Fog, for the first time!
The One You Know — Starting on an ugly chord, working their way to an ugly-chord riff. The rhythm section is lively but boy it’s plain so far. Jerry’s got much more bite to his vocals than he used to, which is to his credit. He sounds a lot more like leading-man material, but still not quite there. The chorus is actually kind of great in a pop-rock way, in a way that reminds me of AiC’s third, interesting-but-kind-of-weak record (“Tripod”, the dog-cover record). But back we go to this weak riff. There’s a wah-wah solo, always Mark’s favourite, but it’s pretty interesting and would probably be amazing if there was more going on with that stupid riff. To AiC’s credit, this song actually has a nice, subdued bridge with some interesting harmonies, but this is very much Jerry’s show, and the new singing gent (William DuVall) is unfortunately sidelined even though his voice is strong. Overall, this is exactly the single you would expect Alice in Chains to release in 2018, for better and for worse.
Rainier Fog — A much more interesting riff this time. Rainier, if you don’t know, is the name of a mountain in Washington. The vocals are, again, far improved from old Cantrell, but the absence of Layne Staley and the weird quirks, the strange wrong-but-right melodic ideas he added, is still obvious to me. … A whole verse and chorus has passed with nothing new happening, so that I almost didn’t notice it passing. Another really interesting breakdown in this song, though, with a clear 80s influence (chorus bass, spacey drums), and it makes me wonder if Alice in Chains is getting tired of being Alice in Chains. There’s some interesting lead work in this bridge that sounds unfamiliar, but ultimately the good will is spent on an unnecessary third verse and chorus.
Red Giant — This sounds like a riff from their earlier era, filtered through a 2018-pop-metal lens. There’s something weak to the way the drums are recorded. It’s too bad. Sean Kinney is a superb drummer who has always been playing down, mostly keeping his noodley inclinations in check for this grunge band. Here, he’s much more lively, but it’s undercut by a soft production touch. Hah, I’m not sure if I’ve even heard the bass yet on this record. Not a good sign. Between the loud guitars, endless riffs, extended solos, and vocals, this record feels very much like the Cantrell show. Mostly that’s for worse, but there’s some good solo work here. Boy this pre-chorus and chorus is dreck, though. Too long! All of these songs would be better songs if they dropped the last verse and chorus, or the verse at least, or the chorus. Instead, they go on and on.
Fly — We’ve reached the acoustic song on the record. Sort of. Still lots of lead guitar. Still lots of rock drumming. Boy, this is bad. What is this about? What is he talking about? “Fill up on love when you’re hungry”? This isn’t great. It’s definitely leaning somewhere between Bon Jovi’s “Dead or Alive” and Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters”… but more optimistic! “Waiting out the storm until the skies are clear to fly.” This is what boring dad music used to be, before boring dad music became the National. And guess what? Third verse and third chorus that is exactly the same as the two that preceded it. The shortest song so far has was 4:49.
Drone — Riff riff riff. One of the thing I used to love about Alice in Chains’ riffs is that they sounded weird. Yes, they leaned on rock and metal standards, but they were chromatic, or in odd scales, or strangely musical. Here, instead, it’s all blues rock and none of the weird. Again, some interesting drums. Again, wah-wah mini-solo. Again, bland vocals (albeit one or two interesting harmonies). There’s an interesting tempo/acoustic transition here, but the part that follows is mostly interesting because it’s different from what came before it.
I can’t believe I hit a fucking deer. What an awful waste.
Jesus, this song is still going. There is a second wah-wah solo in. They’re back to the original rhythm for—yes—a third verse and chorus. After the punishing repetition of these songs, I can’t help but consider that maybe Alice in Chains was always just sort of bad and that I’m only being so critical because I’m hearing this for the first time in 2018. What would younger me have thought of this? … I hope I would have found the vocals dull, at least. But I bet I would have loved this. I was terrible. I am terrible still.
This song is still going.
Deaf Ears Blind Eyes — Not exactly an auspicious start, with a song title like that. But there’s some interesting stuff in the opening riff. The verse seems to promptly quash any hopes, BUT then the chorus comes in and it’s legitimately a little weird and interesting and actually evokes an uneasy mood/feeling. It’s no great track, but at least it’s doing something? God, I’m reaching here. This is really-well-produced nonsense.
There’s not even a Denny’s in this town. I was told that “the Tim Horton’s might be open all night if they have anybody to staff it.”
OK, a couple of interesting parts in this song, and as I was writing this sentence, the third verse began.
It was more that the deer hit me. But still. God it sucks.
Some interesting riffing at the end here.
Maybe — Maybe not, amiright? Some questionable vocal choices, into our Jovi acoustic rock again. So many harmonies but they… I don’t know, jive too well, don’t interact but act as one boring organism. God these chord progressions are killing me. Bad choice of words, all things considered tonight. “Let it die.” If they had ended the song here, it might have been an interesting choice. Instead, the song is only one third done, another five and a half minute ride through lines like “Maybe you should know I’m feeling lonely and I’m tired… Maybe this will show I’m feeling empty, uninspired.” It’s showing, Jerry. “Let it die” he says again right before a beautifully recorded solo that has none of the movement and inspiration that I remember when I was a kid. Maybe I imagined it all? No third verse, but we get the full third chorus. “Let it die.” Yeah. OK.
So Far Under — I once played with Mark and some other dear friends at a place that had a name like Jimmy’s Wing Shack or something. They had one of those punching bag machines and a drunk woman sat on our friend’s/drummer’s lap. This riff is exactly what I imagine a band playing Jimmy’s Wing Shack would play. From there, we go into a pre-chorus and a chorus that are mostly just more riff. And repeat. “No one gets off of this ride alive.” Some of these lines make me think Alice in Chains is screwing with me. I think maybe DuVall is singing some of the leads here? It’s hard to tell. The choruses sound different. Some interesting solo work here.
Never Fade — I haven’t pulled an all-nighter in some time. I’m fading.
Again, this sounds like DuVall might be taking over some of the singing duties. The verses are kind of weak, but the choruses are well sung. And the trading off between Cantrell and DuVall livens up the listening experience, hearing DuVall do two lines, and Cantrell follow with two more. It suggests what this band could be. That said, DuVall really is sort of squandering these verses. When the chorus repeats a second time, I’m just as excited and interested to hear them trade lines as the first time. Extended solo time. Boy, Mike Inez (their bass player) is just barely on this record. He’s like one or two steps from being Fieldy on a Korn record. This is not a timeless song, but for me, this chorus is as interesting as the record has been so far. “Never faaaaade!” I’m trying, man.
All I Am — The closer. Starting on a Jovi-acoustic-rock meets “Hotel California” vibe. OK, I’m being a little cruel, but it does evoke that a little. It’s almost 3am. All of these songs are longer than they need to be. This has an interesting mood, and not an abjectly bad vocal delivery in the chorus, but whenever the singing is good, it reminds me that the lyrics are bad. … OK, fuck it, I’m into this fake Hotel California nonsense. I think if they took a song like this and built some more dynamics into it, they might be able to make it interesting. As it stands, the whole thing essentially feels the same volume; you can feel it’s supposed to get louder during the choruses, but the song has no extra headroom. Some interesting time-signature stuff here. “I don’t recognize the face before me. It’s unfamiliar.” That’s the last line on the record. OK.
Verdict — Alice in Chains have managed to make me question my confidence in my memory. Was it always this mediocre? Was I? Why couldn’t the deer have jumped the other way instead of into my lane? The album sounds wonderfully recorded and produced but simultaneously gutless, with a nearly absent bass on standard headphones, and with drums that feel thin and uniform. The guitars sound ripping and have a few inspired moments, but the vocals are just a smear of uninteresting choral work rather than the interplay between two vocalists. The Jovi-esque moments were unfortunate too.
So the verdict? I should leave Alice in Chains be. They’re not for me anymore. This is probably awesome music for somebody, but even for that somebody, I wonder if they should maybe trim off more third verses, at the very least.
3:08am. I wish I hadn’t left my toothbrush in the busted-up car. I wish I hadn’t killed a deer.