One of the seminal albums of the grunge movement, Facelift's historical significance often overshadows its content. Arriving a year prior to the release of Nirvana's behemoth Nevermind, Facelift was instrumental in fashioning the sound that became the voice of the grunge generation.
Unfortunately, the band attributed more importance to forging this sound than crafting songs to inhabit it. Seemingly the band devoted more effort to devising a suitably savage guitar tone and evoking the desired macabre atmosphere than creating particularly strong melodies, and the album suffers greatly as a result.
This isn't apparent from the start. The album immediately launches into the grunge anthem We Die Young, a perfect showcase for the group's distinct sound that manages to avoid neglecting the hooks department. At the song's end the band immediately segues into the group's first hit, Man In The Box; while the melody isn't quite as strong as the prior track, it compensates for that shortcoming with an intensely ominous and macabre sound.
Unfortunately things go awry from that point forward. While subsequent tracks preserve the bleak atmosphere of the album, they're impeded by a dearth of hooks and strong melodies. The album's sound is far too uniform, ergo most of the tracks tend to blend together, inevitably leading to a tedious experience.
On their own many of the tracks are decent enough, but when they're crammed between an armada of similar songs there's little to sustain one's interest. Jerry Cantrell fails to concoct enough striking riffs, and Layne Staley's vocal melodies begin to sound identical track after track, with only a modicum of songs doing anything to differentiate themselves from the others.
While the album is certainly a success with regard to cultivating the desired atmosphere, the band hadn't matured enough in the songwriting department to make good use of this tenebrous vibe. While it's important to create a distinctive sound for a debut, an original sound isn't enough to make a great album, and in the end the CD simply bombards the listener with the same morbid atmosphere over and over again for the disc's duration, utterly devoid of any diversity to give the poor listener a respite from the perpetual darkness.
On their first EP (and a particularly diminutive one at that), the group decided to branch out stylistically, producing a set of acoustic numbers (plus a hidden eldritch, cacophonous jam whose only purpose seems to be to torment the listener).
While a departure from their usual style makes for a welcome diversion, and the tracks are pleasant enough, they ultimately don't amount to much, attracting more attention for their contrast with the group's usual material than any particular merits of their own.
With a length of only about twenty minutes the EP is too short to make much of a lasting impression, though it's certainly enjoyable while it's on (save for the previously mentioned unlisted track 5), and the group already seem to be making some progress on the songwriting front (progress that would peak later that year with their second full length release, Dirt).
It's through no liability of the acoustic set that the EP receives such a low rating, it's merely that at such a short length there's a scarcity of substance on the disc. In the end Sap mostly amounts to an intriguing transition between albums, a pleasant listen to tide fans over until the imminent release of their next real artistic endeavor.
While the group had already developed the perfect sound on their debut, it wasn't until Dirt that they were able to capitalize on this tenebrous atmosphere. The band's songwriting had developed immeasurably in the intervening years, and the marriage of this refined melodic talent and haunting sound make Dirt one of the crowning achievements of the grunge movement.
Whereas on Facelift most of the songs simply blended together in a torrent of monotony, on Dirt each track has something worthwhile to offer (save the harmless joke of track ten). Cantrell's riffs have become more distinct and memorable, while Staley's vocal melodies have become catchy without diminishing their innate morbidity.
By no longer promoting the atmosphere as the main attraction, much more emphasis is placed on the songs themselves, leading to more diversity (not that it ever becomes that diverse, this merely denotes the addition of the occasional ballad and the fast/slow tempo dichotomy) and finer craftsmanship.
Focusing more on catchy hooks by no means compromises the dark atmosphere the group is known for; rather, it makes the darkness that much more concentrated and hard hitting. The band has reached a point in their development where they no longer need to hide behind the macabre atmosphere, leading to songs that make use of their dark vibe rather than relying on it.
Dirt represents the apex of the group, a point where their songwriting and caliginous atmosphere reached a perfect balance. While Facelift ultimately acted as a mood album that faded away the moment the CD was over Dirt is an intensely memorable experience that remains haunting even after the disc is over.
Yet another EP with the emphasis on Cantrell's acoustic strumming, only this time around JoF is both lengthier and more developed than its predecessor Sap. Just as there was a huge leap between Facelift and Dirt, JoF is vastly superior to Sap, benefiting from the band's monumental progression in the songwriting department.
Just as Facelift provided an aural foundation for Dirt, JoF takes the haunting, moody acoustic sonic landscape of Sap and injects improved melodies and an array of clever hooks into the proceedings.
While JoF doesn't equal Dirt in the songwriting department, proving that the band's strength still centered around electric workouts, the EP is still quite enjoyable, and makes a nice change of pace after the sonic bludgeoning of their last album. The group displays quite a flair for this acoustic sound, and their desire to try something different is an admirable one and a chance few established groups would be willing to take.
In the end JoF, while not a remarkable venture on its own (though still quite strong as an independent project), works as a slice of something different from the group's norm, and proves that there was more to the band than electrified angst anthems. The group's improved songwriting translates into the acoustic realm as well, making this an EP that definitely merits the attention of any fan of the band, both as something different and a set that can stand up on its own strengths.
For their studio swansong, AiC unleashed a procession of pounding, enervated sludge rockers, reminiscent of their work on Dirt save for the feeling that the energy has been educed from the tracks, exuding an aura of forceful, primal despair.
While the songwriting doesn't quite measure up to the parade of grunge classics on Dirt, the band have still retained a strong aptitude for composing. Cantrell concocts a number of striking, ominous riffs and Staley's vocals have never sounded better.
The main disparity between this eponymous album and Dirt relates to the energy issue. While the slow, moody feel works well here, the tracks will invariably start to drag, as many songs seem over extended, and without any drive or momentum they'll inevitably outstay their welcome.
The slowness ultimately works in the album's favor, however, as it prevents the album from feeling like a rehash of its predecessor. By differentiating itself from Dirt the album manages to forge its own identity in the group's discography.
The songwriting is strong enough to ensure that this new style works, and while the sound can feel a tad uniform the songs fit it perfectly.
The earth-rumble guitar tone (seemingly inherited from the prototypical metal band, Black Sabbath, from their consummately heavy pioneering masterpiece Master Of Reality) and enervated feel make this the group's heaviest and most angst ridden album of their career, and a fitting close to their regrettably short lifespan (all too literally in the case of Staley, who inadvertently prophesized his own end in We Die Young). While the sound can grow repetitious, the skillful songwriting ensures that each track has something unique to offer, and the lack of energy makes the music that much more haunting.
On All Secrets Known, the opening track on Alice In Chains' long awaited comeback Black Gives Way To Blue, lyrics involving 'a new beginning' and 'there's no going back' recur throughout the song. These statements couldn't be further from the truth, however, as in no way is Black Gives Way To Blue a reinvention or reimagining of Alice In Chains; on the contrary, the band pick up right where they left off, delivering an anachronistic listening experience that could very well have emerged directly from the nineties.
As for the song itself, All Secrets Known opens with a hypnotic spiraling riff before segueing into a tenebrous, atmospheric grunge anthem. Truth be told, the track is ultimately rather unremarkable, but the band didn't need the song to be a classic. What the band did need was concrete, indisputable evidence that they could return to their classic sound without losing any conviction or credibility, and in this regard the song is a resounding success.
As amazing as it may seem, after a fourteen-year sabbatical taken to mourn the passing of erstwhile Alice In Chains lead vocalist Layne Staley, the band display little in the way of rust, nor have their prodigious talents atrophied. Unfortunately, at times it seems that the band is focusing on recapturing their classic sound to the exclusion of all else. While no tracks are outright bad or offensive, Black Gives Way To Blue seems like an archetypal case of style over substance, as the band have perfectly emulated their signature sound while remaining somewhat negligent in the melody department.
There are certainly exceptions to this rule. Check My Brain, A Looking In View and Take Her Out are solid, entertaining numbers that unsurprisingly all happen to include vocal hooks that are almost defiantly poppy in nature. Check My Brain, in particular, has an irresistibly catchy refrain that dilutes the perpetual seriousness of the album's tone with a touch of dark humor.
While there's certainly an alarming paucity of memorable hooks on the album, this won't be a concern for most Alice In Chains fans who will simply be elated that the band were able to faithfully recreate their old sound.
Furthermore, in this case preserving the band's form, even without its substance, proves sufficient to make for an entertaining album for most casual fans as well. Black Gives Way To Blue is a thoroughly moody, atmospheric listen that remains compelling even when it suffers in the hook department. Additionally, the album provides bountiful visceral thrills with its heavy, uncompromising arrangements, as the band thankfully haven't mellowed in their old age.
Black Gives Way To Blue is certainly a trifle overlong for an album that's sorely lacking in the diversity department, and few enduring classics are added to the band's repertoire, but it's still a remarkable feat for a group to disband for over a decade and then reconvene without missing a step. Black Gives Way To Blue is an Alice In Chains album, and for nearly any other group a statement of that nature would mean something entirely different in the nineties or the new millennium, whether or not they'd ever even taken a prolonged hiatus.
While Black Gives Way To Blue manages to be enjoyable largely on the basis of duplicating the band's classic style, it's clear that this is a trick that can't be repeated. The album suffers from serious liabilities, ones that can't be overlooked on future outings should they recur. Nevertheless, for now Alice In Chains fans can rejoice in having their band back, and the album's flaws doubtless won't detract from the sheer jubilation of a fanbase that's been granted a dream they've been harboring for well over a decade.