Black Gives Way to Blue is Alice in Chains’ first album in 14 years and first without late singer Layne Staley, but Staley was also never the band’s driving creative force, even during his most engaged moments. That honor went to guitarist Jerry Cantrell, who was the primary songwriter, and, in later years, often lead vocalist as well. For Black, Cantrell, bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney have recruited William DuVall to replace Staley, but it’s Cantrell’s voice as a musician and songwriter that dominates the album. What that means is that Black doesn’t sound much different from the two solo albums Cantrell released a few years back, continuing the AIC legacy of sludgy, sometimes catchy hard rock, but too often getting lost in long songs that meander without discernible hooks.
Lead single “Check My Brain” is concise and punchy, and a worthy successor to such AIC rockers as “Them Bones” and “Grind,” but the rest of the album is not nearly as satisfying. DuVall, whose voice isn’t too far removed from Staley’s, growls through the impressively old-school “Last of My Kind,” and “A Looking in View” has a brutal heaviness to it. Even those highlights are spotty, though, and the album fails to cohere as the best AIC work did.
Black doesn’t do a disservice to Staley’s memory so much as prove his bandmates’ best music might be behind them.