Like AC/DC, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and in a sense, New Order, Alice In Chains belong to a select group of acts who have the unwanted distinction of being a band whereupon every note of music made after a certain point in time can be deemed something of a triumph. Now 16 years away from the tragic death of singer and founding member Layne Staley, ‘Rainier Fog’ much like the band’s 2009 comeback ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’ and 2013’s excellent ‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here’, is a record that really shouldn’t exist. Just by being here, by restoring life into the space where death once reigned, ‘Rainier Fog’ is a triumph.
That said, Alice In Chains, on their sixth album, have now made as many records with singer William DuVall as they did with his departed predecessor. This, and the art contained within, might be the point and the reason where the 50-year-old Washingtonian is no longer viewed as a newcomer. While the record ploughs similarly grungy furrows to that of the band’s classic Staley era work, there’s a lightness of touch to this collection of songs – an optimism, so to speak – that in many ways feels fresh and new. They were always one of the most metal band of the alt.rock boom that emerged from their Seattle scene in the early 1990’s, but on ‘Rainier Fog; there’s a beauty and an expanse – as well as a major chord or two – that sees the band evolving.
Named after Mount Rainier, the volcano 59 miles south-east of the band’s home city, and recorded at Seattle’s Studio X (where the band recorded their last album with Staley in 1995), it’s possible that the record’s grace stems from the introspection. Kurt has gone. Cornell too. Though not actually from the Emerald City, spiritual disciple of the Seattle sound and Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland has passed on also. With respect to the eternally gargantuan Pearl Jam, in many ways, Alice In Chains remain the last of the grunge generation standing. With that comes a hushed subtlety – an assurance of self that is more maudlin than morose.
‘Maybe’ is pretty where, perhaps, an earlier incarnation of the band would have fattened it up and run it through a fuzzier fuzz pedal. ‘Fly’ still features the psychedelic drone so crucial to the band’s sound, as well as featuring a guitar solo that’s so out there NASA might as well have stuck their logo upon it and used it to search distant galaxies. Yet within said song, DuVall’s croon aligns with band fulcrum Jerry Cantrell’s voice to create a sound that goes to a new – dare we say? – happier place, one that transcends the ache and hurt of the band’s previous work. Not that scars aren’t on display elsewhere: closer ‘All’ I Am still sounds like it comes from a place dark, dank and painful to get into and even more so to climb out of.
Like the two preceding records to feature DuVall, it’s impossible not to respect Alice In Chain’s continued presence and consistent output. They’re a reminder that life must go on. More crucially however, ‘Rainier Fog’ is a timely reminder that life must be cherished and enjoyed too.