This is going to be hard to believe, but late vocalist Layne Staley’s successor William DuVall has been in the band for seven years now. Alice in Chains made a very shrewd move by moving their resurrection along at a gradual, methodical pace. They started the rebirthing process off with a few gigs here and there, and patiently waited over three years before releasing their comeback album, ‘Black Gives Way to Blue.’ With that album, AiC had to acknowledge the passing of Staley (the beautiful, haunting title track is an utterly perfect eulogy) while simultaneously giving DuVall a proper introduction. It’s four years later now, and the grunge pioneers have finally released their follow-up album, cleverly titled ‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here’ and unencumbered by any obligations or constraints.
By now, most of you have heard “Hollow,” the first single as well as the album’s opener. The track is quintessential Alice in Chains: dark, bleak lyrics anchored by one of Jerry Cantrell’s heavy, plodding guitar riffs, which is in turn buoyed by the dirge-like rhythms of bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney. It’s a winner, and it sounds phenomenal live too (read my review of Alice in Chains’ set at this year’s Rock On The Range festival here). “Pretty Done” is the next product to come off the sludge factory — heavy enough to appease metalheads while still retaining that unique Pacific Northwest sound that lumped the band into the grunge genre. The track’s chorus is grandly epic, which is a trademark for the band, and something not too many others can pull off as consistently.
“Stone” starts off with a greasy, undulating bass line from Inez, providing a thick foundation for Cantrell’s leviathan guitar riff. Cantrell is just one of the legions of guitarists heavily influenced by heavy metal godfather Tony Iommi, but unlike the majority of them, he has built upon that inspiration and created his own inimitable style, which itself has been aped endlessly over the past two decades. Like the Black Sabbath riff-master, Cantrell isn’t afraid to vary his six-string attack from one song to the next either. Whilst his playing on “Stone” is heavy, driving and doomy, the very next song, “Voices,” is mellow and easy to hum along to. Indeed, this track is all but guaranteed to be a future single, despite clocking in at over six minutes.
Likewise, “Breath on a Window” has a tempo that is just as kinetic as “Stone,” but without the metallic sturm und drang. Listening to a song such as this one, it’s easy to understand why bands as diverse as Opeth and Godsmack cite them as a major influence. And then, at the absolute opposite end of the rock spectrum from metal, is “Scalpel,” which is the closest Alice in Chains has ever come to writing a country song. Cantrell has flirted with the genre before on his solo albums, but it’s still a bit of a shock to hear steel guitar in an AiC song. Fortunately, this is a band that has refused to be pigeonholed ever since the release of the mellow, melancholy EP ‘Sap’ back in 1991. There is no justifiable reason for fans not to embrace “Scalpel”; good music is good music, and the quality of an Alice in Chains track cannot be measured simply by its beats per minute, or by how “underground” it sounds. This is the bane of almost every single band covered by the metal’s considerable umbrella, but AiC is one of the elite few exceptions.
‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here’ here does suffer a bit from being overlong, especially toward the end. “Hung on a Hook” and album closer “Choke” are just kind of… there. Some judicious trimming would’ve made this album a leaner, meaner machine, with songs that stick in your cranium more readily. There’s only a minimum amount of experimentation as well. Other than the previously mentioned “Scalpel” and the Middle Eastern-influenced title track (a subtle yet unmistakably clever attack on fundamental Christian dogma), most of the songs here fit very easily into the Alice in Chains mold, even without the presence of Staley and original bassist Mike Starr.
Admittedly minor gripes aside, ‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here’ is one of the year’s most essential rock albums, and has cemented Alice in Chains’ place in the upper echelons of hard rock royalty. They are also one of the very select few bands to remain just as vital after replacing their original lead vocalist (AC/DC, Van Halen, Iron Maiden… the list is extremely short). Like those other bands, Alice in Chains didn’t hire a clone of their former singer, but instead brought aboard someone with the talent, charisma, and attitude to continue the momentum that was unfortunately interrupted.
Special mention must be made concerning the album’s cover art and packaging. The simple cover features just a fossilized skull of a dinosaur called a triceratops. However, if you remove the CD booklet from the red jewel case, you can easily see a mirror image of the skull. Where the two skulls intersect, there appears to be a third skull, this one belonging to some sort of demon, perhaps Satan himself. Inside the booklet are similar pictures featuring more overlapping dinosaur skulls. In an age where physical media is becoming a thing of the past, it’s refreshing to see a band devote so much effort into creating something unique and special for those who still prefer compact discs over mp3s.