Alice In Chains: Scala, London

CONTEMPORARIES OF Nirvana and Pearl Jam during the Seattle grunge boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Alice In Chains returned from a long hiatus with a one-off London show on Tuesday. The set was mostly a memory-jogging selection of the band’s doom-laden grunge-metal anthems, but it also featured a sneak preview of their first studio album in 14 years, Black Gives Way to Blue, due in late September.

Although they never officially disbanded, Alice In Chains seemed definitely doomed following the death of their original singer, Layne Staley, from a drugs overdose in 2002. But their unusually melodic, twin-vocal style remained respected in hard rock circles and influential on other artists, particularly Metallica. In 2006, their guitarist and de facto leader Jerry Cantrell reformed the band and successfully toured with a new singer, William Duvall.

Two days after the band’s Sonisphere Festival appearance in Knebworth, this rare club date was packed to bursting point with headbanging fans, many too young to have seen the band first time around. Their 90-minute set mostly consisted of former singles and live favourites, with particular emphasis on their biggest selling album to date, the quadruple-platinum Dirt from 1992. They began with ‘Rain When I Die’, a chugging crescendo of minor-chord menace, followed by the seething rage of ‘Angry Chair’ and a muscular, raucous ‘Man In The Box’.

For a huge band accustomed to filling arenas, their no-frills performance was oddly devoid of drama or dynamism. This is a problem inherent in the whole grunge movement, which borrowed the sonic weaponry of heavy metal but replaced its theatricality with po-faced indie-rock values. Too often this meant throwing humour, showmanship and plain old fun out with the bathwater.

That said, the new singer Duvall won the London fans over with ease, reaching out into a forest of adoring arms throughout the show. Clearly a capable and charismatic frontman, he never let slip any sense of disquiet at singing Staley’s horror-movie lyrics or aping his half-sneered, quasi-liturgical vocal style.

Three tracks from the new album mostly were spaced carefully throughout the set. The former download single ‘A Looking In View’ was the weakest, a sluggish bulldozer of sludgy guitar riffs. ‘Acid Bubble’ sounded better, quietly brooding one minute, a roaring gallop the next. The best of the trio was the new single, ‘Check My Brain’, with a buzzsaw punk-pop melody reminiscent of vintage Nirvana.

The show’s final stages were marred by minor sound problems and rather too many generic grunge-metal plodders. But the band recovered, almost blowing the roof off with their raunchy blues-punk finale ‘Rooster’. Alice In Chains may not be the most exciting or innovative hard rockers around, but they are a living rebuttal to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s celebrated maxim that there are no second acts in American life.

© Stephen DaltonThe Times, August 2009

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