Let’s quickly dispense with the super-ugly aspects of Alice in Chains’ nearly 25-year career arc; this will require harkening back to the single bleakest song of the ’90s. It’s called “Junkhead.” It had, of course, fierce competition. But it wins (er, loses).
“Junkhead,” centerpiece of the band’s 1992 epochal Seattle grunge semi-masterpiece, Dirt, concerns then-frontman Layne Staley’s unapologetic love of hard drugs. Over a blaring, grouchy guitar riff that, per AIC custom, basically sounds like incredibly angry men angrily de-tuning their guitars in slow motion, he lets fly with a few pulverizing, guttural YEEAAAAHHHHs—Staley was pretty much the Mark Rothko of singing the word Yeah—before painting a disconcertingly sunny, triumphant portrait of his own addiction. Pearl of wisdom: “Nothin’ better than a dealer who’s high.” Mission statement: “We are an elite race of our own/The stoners, junkies, and freaks.” Confrontational boast: “Are you happy?/I am, man.” Chorus: “What’s my drug of choice/Well, what have you got?” Final verse:
You can’t understand the user’s mind
But try with your books and degrees
If you let yourself go and opened your mind
I’ll bet you’d be doing like me
And it ain’t so bad
Staley was found dead in his condo in April 2002. The details are not pleasant. He was 34. The band’s influence on a new generation of knuckle-draggers was and is undeniable (Dirt has a song called “God Smack,” if that tells you anything), but no one expected to ever hear from the surviving dudes themselves ever again.
And shazam: Alice in Chains saunter onstage last Tuesday night at a sold-out Terminal 5, with a new, alarmingly Staley-esque lead singer (vocally, not chemically, one assumes) and a new album to promote, in a show that is by turns bewildering, uncomfortable, rousing, sweetly nostalgic, and absurdly awesome. Goaded on by a sweaty, muscular, amped-up throng of thirtysomething fist-pumpers and actual lighter-wavers in a macho sort of reminiscing mood, the boys plow through new tunes expertly designed to resemble the old hits and, far more preferably, the old hits themselves. No “Junkhead,” though.
Now. The Bands That Replaced Their Lead Singers ghetto ain’t no kinda place to hang out. Pick your own favorite atrocity. (Mine’s INXS.) Soothe yourself, perhaps, with the knowledge that the vintage AIC lineup is otherwise intact, which means bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney (who by design is exasperatingly lead-footed—dude fuckin’ plods) backing up singer/lead guitarist/primary songwriter Jerry Cantrell, the band’s true power center even back in the day, whipping up blues, metal, and wimpy-white-guy acoustic melancholy into an awfully appealing sludge. But your new focal point is William DuVall, who, in contrast to his appropriately haggard new bandmates (Cantrell looks like Dolph Lundgren losing weight to play either Willie Nelson or Raiden in the next Mortal Kombat sequel), is a spry, lithe, photogenic, be-Afro’d, exuberant sort, like a Rock Band character come to life. He is enjoying himself, which, all that “Are you happy?” talk aside, is not a vibe you ever particularly got from his predecessor.
As for the voice, it’s maybe like a 70 percent genetic match; he can’t approach Staley’s more histrionic moments of ludicrous bombast, but that doesn’t really matter—when it’s time to rip into the epochal self-loathing pathos of “Down in a Hole” (which triggers copious audience high-fives and fuck yeah‘s) or belt out the “JEEEEESUS CHRRRIIISSST!” chorus of the marvelously crunchy stoner-ball anthem “Man in the Box,” he’s got several thousand sweaty disciples screaming along with him, drowning out any inadequacies. He fares best in duet—Cantrell and Staley perfected a droning, sourly melodic style of intertwined close-harmony, and DuVall slides into that role with ease, the melodramatic precision that somehow makes “No Excuses,” off 1992’s stripped-down, still shockingly poignant Jar of Flies EP, simultaneously an upper and a downer.
Not that DuVall’s not his own man with his own style, but them’s the breaks in the Bands That Replaced Their Lead Singers ghetto—you might as well be filling a role on Broadway. Last fall, after a self-explanatory 14-year drought, AIC 2.0 put out a new record, Black Gives Way to Blue, with a few catchy-in-a-monochrome-way radio jams and some long, grinding, pleasingly turgid slogs: At Terminal 5, Cantrell drops a squalling, crabby, almost avant-garde solo into “A Looking in View,” which the crowd regards politely; our motives are pretty obvious, especially when the old acoustic-ish jam “Got Me Wrong” comes around and we shout the chorus en masse: I haven’t felt like this in so long! Wouldn’t have mattered at that point if the new guy sounded like Bette Midler.
Yes, this is the sort of show wherein I compulsively start live-text-messaging the set list (“Rain When I Die”!) to close friends, reveling in the nostalgic squalor, back in high school, back in flannel, back down in the hole. But it’s “Again” that really freaks me out—faced with equally fierce competition, “Again” is the single goofiest song of the ’90s, a deftly dour fist-pumper with the most preposterous bridge ever constructed, a monolithic guitar riff with a two-note harmonic flourish—doot-DOOT!—exacerbated by the fact that the band is cheerfully singing along—doot-DOOT!—as Staley croons a nonchalant series of yeahhhh‘s in the background. Ridiculous. I pretty much lost my mind. This is a strange, occasionally disquieting thing, this AIC reboot, with Staley’s specter ever looming; they don’t play “Junkhead,” no, but they do dust off “We Die Young.” But the T5 masses are too thrilled to get all emo about it. Memory can be a powerful drug, too.