Even if F. Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim that “There are no second acts in American lives” has anything approaching a ring of truth, then, clearly, no-one told Seattle’s Alice in Chains. It is now sixteen years since the untimely death of the band’s original lead singer Layne Staley, a troubled soul whose battles with drugs and depression were a significant element in their art, most notably on the widely praised and equally widely loved album Dirt.
Let’s be fair, of all the bands that emerged from the Seattle grunge scene in the 1990s, you wouldn’t have laid a huge bet that at the end of this decade that they were still in existence, let alone making exciting, passionate rock music. But here we are.
This sixth album of grungy (but not entirely grunge) tunes – their third with singer William Duvall, Rainier Fog (BMG) is probably the most personal album that Alice in Chains have made since Dirt. Named after the mountain close to their Seattle hometown ,and recorded at Studio X, the same location where the band recorded their 1995 self-titled album, (their last with Staley) this is a record that has the band actively questioning their own demons, occasionally not liking what they see in the mirror (real or metaphoric). Notwithstanding, across this album, the overwhelming feelings are of catharsis and defiance: through using the personal as universal, the band has fashioned a record of resonance and heft; they sound utterly vital.
Context, of course, is everything. At the start of the century, Staley’s passing at the absurdly young age of 34, might have led to the band’s demise. Their defiant comeback album, 2009’s Black Gives Way to Blue, was a remarkable way of dealing with grief and moving forward. It is clear, though, that not all demons have been exorcised and, in some instances, some new ones have emerged. This is, in many ways, how life is.
On opening track and lead single ‘The One You Know’, personal introspection is front and center, tackling the big questions about life and death: “Tell me does it matter if I’m still here or I’m gone/Shifting to the after, an imposter”. Similarly, the challenge of dealing with seemingly endless challenges and unbeatable odds on ‘So Far Under’ again gives voice to question whether life is worth the anguish and anger that it can lay at your door: “This whole house of cards crumbling slow/if I disappeared would you even know?”
On the album’s closing track, ‘All I Am’, a maudlin and plaintive reflection of life’s trials and tribulations, its highs and lows, one could be forgiven for thinking this is a bleak and unforgiving record.
You would be wrong.
Whilst the band ask deep and personal questions about life, grief and what it all means, the answers they land on are in the affirmative. This is a record that is an ode to stoicism and perseverance. It is a record about dealing with change, about adapting and evolving. As Duvall adroitly puts it on the album’s title track “My see-through heart of Eurythane/beats for you proud, up down and through all the love and pain”. This is a band who, thankfully, have chosen to endure.
Sonically, Rainier Fog sounds like classic Alice in Chains – huge riffs, big choruses and wonderful harmonies courtesy of Duvall and Jerry Cantrell. Rhythmically, Mike Inez and Sean Kinney drive this record forward with aplomb, tight bass lines and percussion, giving the album structure and solidity. What Rainier Fog also offers is a lightness of touch and an optimism that earlier records would have eschewed. This is all good: Rainier Fog is proof positive that no matter how hard the circumstance, how challenging the odds, that life remains worth living and, with thought and reflection, one can come out of the dark, into the light and thrive. And that alone is a matter for rejoicing.