“Old Mr. Fun is back, wonder where he’s been hiding at?” (“Low Ceiling”)
This gritty, sarcastic line from the new Alice in Chains album seems appropriate, even when said in partial sincerity. Alice in Chains fans have been highly anticipating something new after 2009’s unforgettable Black Gives Way to Blue, possibly the strongest rock album of the past ten to fifteen years. To some people, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here feels like a sophomore album by a new band, given that it was a “rebirth” of sorts when the band reunited following the 2002 death of original lead singer, Layne Staley; to others, Dinosaurs is simply another entry in a timeless, long-respected discography, since Alice has always (surprise, surprise) sounded like Alice.
Keeping in mind the tremendous, well-deserved praise heaped upon Black Gives Way to Blue, it should be made clear immediately that The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is not a sequel to its predecessor. And although no one wishes for their favorite bands to release the same album over and over, accepting the clear differences between the two albums can be tough. When such a masterpiece is released, expectations for the follow-up are massive. Perhaps that is unfair to Alice in Chains. However, it does not make Dinosaurs‘ dull moments any less dull, and that is unfortunate.
This album is such a mixed bag, often brilliant and occasionally indifferent. The journey begins with “Hollow”, which utilizes chunky guitar riffs and trademark, droning Alice in Chains vocal harmonies from Jerry Cantrell and William DuVall. It does not tread new territory, yet it is a nice way to open the album, considering it is among the catchiest and most memorable offerings.
“I don’t care how to further amuse you / never had you, how could I lose you?” Such is the question posed by “Pretty Done”, a true Dinosaurs highlight which beautifully demonstrates how Cantrell is the master of all things bleak. The vocals and arrangements are captivating, in typical Alice form, yet there’s something offbeat and eerie about this track in particular — one could say it is in the vein of “Head Creeps” or “Brush Away” from the ‘three-legged dog’ album. Propelled by an unbelievably addictive, Sabbath-inspired guitar riff, and fantastic bass playing by Mike Inez, “Stone” is sludgy and straightforward, an awe-inspiring display of this band’s musicianship.
The title track, “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here”, is fascinating in some ways — for one, the intro is a slight nod to “Love, Hate, Love”, and one peculiar line, “Drink me, eat me up” might be a clever reference to another ‘Alice in’ — specifically, Alice in Wonderland. However, after numerous listens, this sarcastic song taking a jab at extremists seems to try too hard to be controversial, while offering little of substance.
Dinosaurs gets a bit Slayer with the maniacal, thrilling guitar attack of “Phantom Limb”, bludgeoning listeners with its simple aggression. What is remarkable, though, is the way this pure chaos (also driven by drummer Sean Kinney‘s amazing performance) is beautifully juxtaposed with DuVall’s forceful, highly melodic vocals. On the other side of the spectrum, the vulnerable, acoustic sway of “Scalpel” makes for one of the most goosebump-inducing, flawless musical experiences of 2013. It is safe to say that Cantrell’s appreciation for classic country music, and his “Oklahoma side”, are most evident in this gorgeous, pensive tune. “Hard as truth is, been my friend,” he muses quietly, and it almost feels as though there is a sense of positivity — a turning point — toward the song’s end.
Occasionally, Dinosaurs‘ failures are from trying too hard, though there are also times when the songs are poorly composed and emotionally void. “Voices” shows promise early on, then quickly spirals into unimaginative, lifeless slop: “Everybody listen, voices in my head, everybody listen, does yours say what mine says?” Cantrell inquires in the repetitive chorus. This song seems like a better fit on a Shinedown or Seether album than from a band like Alice in Chains, whose music is usually phenomenally melancholic, highly poignant and full of uninhibited emotion. “Breath on a Window” is a watered-down version of Black Gives Way to Blue‘s “Lesson Learned” and fails to turn into anything interesting until the song’s end, when Cantrell and DuVall harmonize, “I’d let ya go, but you’re always in the way”. “Lab Monkey” attempts to recreate the spooky, intense, experimental atmosphere which “Acid Bubble” pulled off perfectly, yet it ultimately goes nowhere. “Hung on a Hook” allows DuVall’s heavenly vocal talents to be put on rare “solo” display, though the song’s pinnacle is slightly ruined by the obnoxious repetitions of “Not gonna save ya / perform euthanasia.”
Fortunately, Cantrell & co. have not forgotten how to close an album extraordinarily. “Choke” is beautiful, wistful and inspiring, steadily building up in pace, giving way to a perfect chorus as DuVall enters with lovely harmonies. Cantrell opens the song with heartbreaking, soft guitar and the cautionary words: “Before you ask for something better, you should know I’m practiced at goodbyes”, eloquently stating the dichotomy of love and being intensely guarded.
The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here contains several spectacular moments, alongside a few too many abysmal ones. One can never really fault a band for experimenting, but sometimes it is not necessarily experimentation, but regression and the dumbing-down of a band’s sound that can harm them the most. It is tough to decipher what went wrong with certain albums, but with Alice in Chains, it is safe to say that the occasionally weak songwriting and highly atypical lack of emotion present in The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here has made this release a disappointment. The kicker is that even a “disappointing” Alice in Chains album can be a genuinely good album, and overall, this is good. It is just not even comparable to the excellence usually expected of this one-of-a-kind band.