Album Review: Alice In Chains “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here” by Donnie Tranchina
LEGENDS of the early ‘90s grunge explosion, this Seattle outfit’s resurrection on 2009’s Black Gives Way To Blue was one of the unlikely success stories of recent years.
Recovering admirably from the death of frontman Layne Staley, the quartet returned with a new singer (William DuVall) and a new sense of purpose, on a record which successfully launched their metal-tinged sound into the 21st century.
By and large, this follow-up is a more predictable affair; the group settling into a secure sweet spot, but still producing material worthy of their name, not to mention the record’s monstrous title.
As is the way with Alice In Chains, these songs tend to plod rather than roar, although there are plenty of instances which display Jerry Cantrell’s enduring riff-writing ability - most notably Stone and Phantom Limb.
A thrilling opening is somewhat offset by a less than spectacular second half, but that shouldn’t prevent ...Dinosaurs from being another hit among fans. 7/10. AW
Alice in Chains were one of the most successful grunge acts of the 1990s, but they were also one of the most derided. They started life as a glam-derived metal band, for which they were dismissed by the same people who embraced Seattle’s other big glam-derived metal band, Mother Love Bone. Layne Staley’s drug metaphors and horror-show vocals made hits out of “Man in the Box” and “Would?” but he could often sound self-satisfied regarding his addictions, which ultimately made it difficult for them to tour. If Alice in Chains staked its popularity on the still-vital Dirt in 1992, they maintained it with an MTV Unplugged album. As a band, they never possessed the metal chops of Soundgarden, or the arena-punk populism of Pearl Jam, or the self-torturing sound of Nirvana. As an influence on subsequent bands, they are arguably responsible for mook-metal acts like Puddle of Mudd, codifying self-absorption as a viable rock'n'roll stance.
Even after Staley’s OD in 2002, it’s no real surprise that Alice in Chains are still around-- there’s always cash in nostalgia-- but it is a surprise that the band's latest album actually sounds like they're trying to move forward rather than rest on their dubious laurels. Despite its very 1990s red jewel case and its trollable title, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is actually a solid mainstream rock album: more inventive than it needs to be, and less self-congratulatory in its intense introspection. That’s due to new vocalist William DuVall, who approximates Staley's blared sneer but actually has more expressive range. And mostly it’s due to Jerry Cantrell, the guitar player, chief songwriter, and arguably the brains behind the band for 20 years now.
In 2009, this new line-up made the tortured-but-determined Black Gives Way to Blue, which lacked the desperation of a typical comeback record. In retrospect, that album sounds like a warm-up for Dinosaurs, which sounds more confident and concentrated than its predecessor. The hooks sounds more insistent, the guitars grind harder, and the songwriting sounds almost extroverted at times. The title track is one of Alice in Chains’ most politicized songs to date, a God’s-eye-view of religious extremism in America and a quick glimpse back at the spiritual doubts that infected “Man in the Box”. “The devil put dinosaurs here,” DuVall sings as the guitars quake and rumble, as though the bottom were falling out of the song. “No problem with faith, just fear.”
That song is six-and-a-half minutes long. It doesn’t need to be. Chop it in half and you could double its impact. But the same could be said of just about any track on Dinosaurs, which typically lumber past the five-minute mark. The result is an album that feels much longer than its bloated 70 minutes, that often buries its best moments, that exhausts its most intriguing ideas either by stretching them out or simply repeating them. On the other hand, Dinosaurs actually does have some intriguing ideas to exhaust, mostly about how you play mainstream rock in 2013. Rather than foreground crunching guitars, “Pretty Done” and “Voices” build their riffs piecemeal out of bent and tortured notes that fit together in jigsaw fashion. The technique approximates melody but conveys mood precisely. That’s what makes first single “Stone” so effective: You’re a full minute or so in before you realize just how smart and menacing its central guitar riff is, or how it slyly establishes an atmosphere of subtle aggression.
In other words, Alice in Chains would rather sneak up on you than attack you with blunt force. That serves a fairly boilerplate anthem like “Scalpel” especially well as it builds quickly from an acoustic intro to an extroverted chorus that in concert likely prompts a few raised lighters. On the other hand, Dinosaurs loses some of its stomp toward the end, with the by-the-numbers “Phantom Limb” and the plodding “Hung on a Hook” sounding more like what you’d expect from Alice in Chains 20 years after their heyday. So it’s as insistent as Dirt, but it’s also not as superfluous as, for example, Soundgarden’s recent reunion record. Instead, Dinosaurs is a testament to how 90s alt-rock angst can translate meaningfully to middle age.
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