by Lee Hazell
Of all the bands that ever made it big Alice in Chains were never the most accessible. The absolute grungiest of all the grunge bands, Alice in Chains always seemed to be sunk in at least another three feet of mud deeper than their closest competitor. In fact so naturally do they wallow in the grime you begin to believe that while other bands dived in from the outside, Alice in Chains were born and raised in it. It’s their swamp the rest just play here.
The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is no different. Just as with Dirt or Facelift, the music is so bleak and pessimistic it’s a wonder anyone wants to listen to it. The drug fueled stoner philosophy that creates a cryptic haze through the lyrics leaves the uninitiated feeling that they’ve stumbled onto a private joke and no one is letting them in on it.
But despite that, the memory of the album is always bugging the back of your mind, the grooves are infectious and leave a beacon in your head, one that constantly calls back to riffs that have sunk their claws into your psyche, ensuring your return. So you give them another try, louder this time and you feel that the band are maybe more willing to give up some of those closely guarded secrets, the ones you couldn’t let go of without giving the album one more listen.
This time you get it. The doomsaying , the misery, the dirges on an apocalyptic level. This isn’t music to make you happy, in fact you realize the role of music in general isn’t to make you happy. It’s to help you express your feelings, whatever those feelings may be. And AIC own melancholy, they dominate despair and they conquer the comedown. If there is music for every mood and occasion, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is for hangovers, heavy mornings tinged with paranoia and regret, a quiet insecurity and the ever present fear of an introverted madness.
Cantrell is a master of melodic metal. No other heavy metal writer uses as many acoustics as he does, nor do they use them so well. He can make the band go for track after track with a far more mellow and chilled out sound than any other heavy rock band on the planet, yet it never feels like the are playing anything other than total metal.
This is due to the sinister nature of his distortions, the quietly demented lyrics and nasally vocals giving the music a surreal edge almost like your hearing it through a demonic radio, one that twists and corrupts the fabric of modern music to create a terrible, yet seductive take on traditional doom metal. A parody created by twisted demons taking a bitter glee in the mess they’re making of your mind. This effect is sharpened by the fact that Cantrell and DuDall’s vocals never feel like they are fully in the foreground, but always partially obscured, like they are hidden behind a misted window.
DuVall isn’t replacing Layne Staley as many have assumed. AIC did not simply pull a bait and switch. Rather Cantrell promoted himself to the lead and slotted Duvall in his former place. His vocals do fit the bands unconventional nature, so unique are they I struggle to find an apt comparison, so odd that if I’ve ever heard anything like them I cannot for the life of me recall. However uniqueness does not necessarily make up for the limitations his voice clearly has.
This poses a problem. Vocally Jerry Cantrell was never Layne Staley and his absence on this album is a lot more apparent here than on the previous effort. Stayley could use his range to lift the band out of the abyss the they call their home. His choruses could be a blinding blast of light in the darkness, liberating the music from the murky, dank depths Cantrell condemned it to. Try as Jerry might his range is just too limited. You can hear him trying but the struggle is just too great.
Sometimes breaking a voice out of its limits can add a passion to the song, but here its clear that Jerry is trying to hit certain heights he is failing to reach. He attempts the breaks for freedom that Stayley afforded the band but every time he does you can hear his shackles bending, buckling, but ultimately defeating him. As a result the album never gets that essential ray of sunshine breaking up the dense oppressive fog of Cantrells heavy themes.
It’s a shame too because it’s these moments that made AIC from a good band to a great one. These breaks in pace stopped the album from becoming monotonous and whiny. Unfortunate you could accuse The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here of being both. Cantrell and DuVall are too similar and both press the nasally aspect of their vocals too far. Doubling up on that kind of vocal style can grind your patience down quick and by the time you hear Lab Monkey you might seriously consider only ever playing the album in small doses. A few more trips to full blown Them Bones style heavy riffage wouldn’t have been hurt either. Unfortunately only two tracks, Stone and Phantom Limb, ever make it that far. Especially for the first couple of listens monotony can be a very irritating trait for an album to take on, especially for one that expects so much generosity and tolerance from the listener.
The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is lacking the stand out moments of Black Gives Way To Blue, as well as the variety that makes an album like this so much more palatable. The riffs and the rhythms are there but a solid foundation does not a great album make. You need that extra special something that tips you over the edge and although it’s taken two albums to show it, I think part of Alice In Chains special something may have passed on eleven years ago.