2015-11-24

Album Review: Alice In Chains - The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

There's something I really respect about Jerry Cantrell, and that is that years can pass, bandmates can over-dose, addictions can be overcome, and yet through it all, he's never stopped being heavy. Maybe this is because Alice in Chains got their "acoustic singer-songwriter" phase out of their systems nice and early, but I like to think it's mostly because Cantrell loves heavy, guitar-driven music, and so that's what he writes.

If he were any other musician, you'd expect the 2013 Alice in Chains album The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here to be mellow. After all, it was the band's second post-Layne-Staley album, all the members are either dead or long in the tooth, and the music industry's appetite for heavy music is perhaps at an all-time low. But Jerry Cantrell is not any other musician, and instead he wrote an album as heavy and awesome as anything you might have heard in the 90s.

Well... anything except a 90s Alice in Chains album. This is inevitable. Alice in Chains was a special mix of energy, chaos, and drug use that was bound to be short-lived, but ferocious; and it was. The cost of their early, drug-fueled genius is that their later, still-awesome, sober records are bound to lack the same kind of energy that reckless twenty-somethings can put into their material. But this isn't fair. You can't compare an album like this to Dirt and then criticize it for not being Dirt. Dirt is over, and what we have now is the band as it is today.

So, rather than living up to Layne Staley nostalgia, The Devil Put Dinosours seems to offer a different thing entirely: You already know Jerry Cantrell to be one of the heaviest, coolest, best songwriters of the 1990s, so let's see what he's up to. What he's up to is everything you can expect from him: heavy riffs, catchy melodies, deft harmonies, guitar tones to die for. There's nothing here to dislike. Shy of Staley's indelible vocal fingerprint, The Devil Put Dinosaurs stands up as the best album that today's Alice in Chains can put out - and it's great!

One comparison that is worth exploring, though, is this: It's interesting to draw parallels between this record and Soundgarden's 2012 effort, King Animal. Both focus their energy on the heaviness of a slow groove, on the cascading layers of vocal tracks and guitars, on the haunting emotional characteristics that defined the music of 1991-1994. It's revelatory that I experience the same emotional response to both records, and no, it's not nostalgia. It's the same feeling I felt as a young man, when I heard these bands for the first time - it's the emotional response they've always been aiming for. It's that mix of melancholy, beauty, and artistic self-expression. Love or hate these old grunge bands, they do what they do remarkably well, even after all these years.

The truth is, I bought The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here on a lark. I expected to dislike the record, but I had a few bonus credits at Amazon burning a hole in my pocket, so I took a chance. Just like the old days, when I used to head over to the CD super-store and take a chance on a budding 90s artist. And much like the 90s, this album gave me a pleasant surprise. Alice in Chains is still a brilliant band, and the fact that their new music takes me back in time tells me that this is every bit the album they wanted to release. Well done.