Friday, January 9, 2015

Whose Band Is It Anyway? (The Worlds Longest and Most Inane Precursor to an Alice In Chains Review) / Album Review: 'The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here'

So, whose fuckin’ band is it anyways? That’s the question that has haunted me for years, and I’m not talking Layne Staley vs. Jerry Cantrell or any of that nonsense either (the answer is obvious by the way – but we’ll get into that later), I’m talking the bigger picture. In the last few years – just to cite some recent examples – there have been a few groups who have drastically changed their style and song writing from a sound they’ve been cemented in for years in just one album’s time. No slow musical evolution as a precursor or warning, (not-so) simply a band trying something different. Some fans are open to it, some just absolutely aren’t.

Cryptopsy drew the curtain a technically impressive, menacing and most importantly – interesting – Death Metal group, and opened it with The Unspoken King as a metal-core act with keyboards and (gasp) clean vocals! Fans bummed hard. Morbid Angel went to the sleep over as an extreme metal outfit whose riffs and signature sound was so fast and so creative that it sometimes morphed itself beyond the trappings of it’s traditional instruments and almost became something droning, beautiful and ambient in it’s buzz. They came home the next morning with electro-ridden dance beats and techno dirges infused in their music on the latest offering Illud Divinium Insanus.

Opeth offered hints and musings with what they liked to dabble in, probably the most obvious with where it may go as songs became more raindrops on spider webs than black rain breaking down kingdoms as albums progressed. But the band’s latest offering, ‘Heritage’ was all progressive and zero pummeling, no Deliverance to it’s Damnation was ever offered. Fans bummed hard – again. So again I ask the question, whose band is it? While an artist by every right should have the artistic freedom to do what they want with their music, most would never have the opportunity to execute it the way they envision without the previous years of financial support from the fans who were very pleased with the product they’ve been putting out. So essentially, Mikael Akerfeldt, who is the main songwriter for Opeth, figuratively made a record HE wanted to make with people who paid him to put out a record THEY wanted to hear but never got. It’s like paying a Porsche factory $100,000 to make you a Porsche – you wait years to get it and when it finally comes pulling onto your street it’s a Volkswagon. “Well we always make Porsches, we wanted to try something different, here ya go”. Some people drive it and find that it handles better than the Porsche, some people refuse to set foot in the fucking thing, some people figure they spent the money so they learn to like it, and some people just trust anything the Porsche factory is going to spit out.

 Or is it the artist’s right to do what he wants when he wants however he wants it to sound, and it’s going to happen whether we like it or not – take it or leave it. If it sucks we stop buying the albums, if it’s good then everyone wins. They put it out there and we either take it or leave it – a real artist doesn’t give a shit. I loved ‘Heritage’, it’s moments like that album that make me happy that some musicians take chances. I actually respect Morbid Angel for doing what they did with Illud Divinium Insanus – they rolled the dice and took the genre of the extreme and tried to show it’s audience a different aspect of it – that extremity isn’t just fast guitars, growling and blurred blast beats. Unfortunately it reeks more of honeymooning in a phase of fan boy nonsense with a different genre of music than it does as a logical step in the direction that band has always been heading before. Like Korn’s “Path Of Totality” – Wow, I’m happy you twats discovered Dub Step and think it’s fuckin’ cool, but show some fuckin’ restraint would you? Are you that egomaniacal to think that the people that still listen to your music are going to think something is bad-ass just because you do? Well, I guess if you’re still buying Korn albums this long after ‘Issues’ than you may be one of those sheep. It’s like getting shitfaced and pissed off and then posting something on Facebook – save it as a draft and come back to it the next day for Christ sake. You’ll be glad you never hit send. I think Korn and Morbid Angel hit send a bit too soon and now have to not only live with the results, but defend them as well.

The more mainstream you are the easier it is to pull off – from a fan acceptance standpoint – trying to convince a record label that you’re switching from a formula that’s raked in millions of dollars for them just to bate your brand new affection for Euro-Trance may be a tougher sell, but I guess that’s what contracts are for. Pop music is a steak – season it anyway you want, when you throw it to most dogs they’re gonna eat the fuckin’ thing because it tastes good to them. Casual music listeners who own an entire catalog of a band they enjoy because it’s pleasing to their ears don’t always argue semantics with this kind of thing. Coldplay and Metallica have more money than Guam, so their art form ain’t exactly their lifesblood. Ship a few hundred thousand less because you want to change the foundation of your music into the hottest trend of Dance-Club audios or a more accessible form of alternative rock and the chances are good you’ll make up the difference of the fans you lost with fans you gained by being that much more in the limelight and in tuned with what’s currently selling. The more popular you are, the more ‘die-hards’ you’ll have convincing themselves that the musical turd you just shot out of your ass is just as amazing as anything else you’ve done. But it’s all at the cost of your own integrity – when does it stop becoming an expression and start becoming lifestyle maintenance? Pump out that album and tweak it to the latest pop music trend so you can get that little palace in St. Lucia. The guy cooking your steaks at Outback Steakhouse isn’t all that concerned about making the world’s most delicious steak – he’s just trying to make it through the day cause he’s either got bills to pay or a new Ipad to buy.

While I understand both sides of the argument, I also think it ain’t your fuckin’ band. Everyone obviously has something to say – and people actually want to hear it, even if it’s about something as personal and subjective as art. The artist should be able to do whatever they want, if I don’t like it I’ll shit on it and move on, people reading what I have to say can roll their eyes and move on.  I’d like to say that bad art will take care of itself, people won’t be interested and the artists funds and exposure will dry up – but in the modern music scene it kind of seems to be the opposite doesn’t it? Stone Temple Pilots announced that they shit-canned their long-time crooner Scott Weiland a few months ago, then just recently replaced him with that walking penile wart Chester Bennington from Linkin Park (speaking of bad art…). Fans are bumming hard. Weiland had a trademark voice for that group, instantly recognizable, and honestly it wasn’t until he started really getting involved in the song writing process for STP on ‘Tiny Music…’ that their music stepped out of the shadows of Pearl Jam clones and into something a bit more original and eclectic. From floor shaking alt-sludge, to feel good lounge rock, to uplifting grunge balladry – you really couldn’t predict what was coming next with those last four STP albums with Weiland helping along at the helm, even if they were borrowing heavily from other influences, it was pulling from a source other groups in the genre weren’t – and it made you forget that they were a 90’s “grunge” band from L.A.

But here’s the thing, I really wish the rest of the band (AKA the DeLeo brothers) would have either gone with a nobody to fill Weiland’s role or gone back to somebody they’ve already collaborated with the last time an STP album was just about in the can but they couldn’t get Scott to pull the needle out of his arm and lay down his vox. I bummed hard when I saw they were getting Ol’ Chester to step into the lead vocalist spot and was extremely skeptical about the end result – but to be honest that new track ‘Out Of Time’ wasn’t the huge ball of shit I was afraid it would be. Now by my own admittance, I don’t know really anything about Chester The Molester’s other bands, shame on me. So I don’t know what kind of vocal range he’s got outside of that kind of annoying high-pitched whine he does but if that’s all there is then it takes out several different dimensions to this band and may make listening to a whole album’s worth of material quite a boring task.

From what I can gather, based on the news that the Deleo bro’s wanted to tour the Core album and Weiland wanted to move on with new music, the decision to go with Chesty La Roux was based more on keeping their wallets full than it was taking the time to find a truly suitable replacement (St. Luuuuuucia). But that wouldn’t have been smooth either I suppose, as nobody likes to see a nobody just jump right into something as huge as Stone Temple Pilots is, because deep down inside it should have been them, cause they’re a nobody too. Unfortunately the relationship between Weiland and the Deleo’s is symbiotic, as (based on Scott’s solo albums without them) they keep him a bit in check from trying too hard in being so weird to the point of stupid. Personally, I think the best move here would have been to reform Talk Show, the one off side project that consisted of all of Stone Temple Pilots minus Weiland. It was basically the next Stone Temple Pilots album that never happened, as was Army Of Anyone’s one release: which consisted of all of Stone Temple Pilots minus Weiland.

So why not just do something new again, with all of Stone Temple Pilots minus Weiland – I mean it all sounds pretty much the same with the Deleo brothers writing the music – but here’s the thing: It ain’t my fuckin’ band. And that’s the point. So for once I need to shut the fuck up about it, as I find myself on the other side of the fence with all the other callow, close minded music fanatics who believe they are a piece of something bigger in their favorite band and flood the message boards with their disapproval of the latest decision their group has made. But if that were the last word then their would be no room for criticism in the art world – follow that simple idea down the philosophical branch and into the hearts of man and it would lead you to a world were there was no such thing as perspective, opinion and diversity – only logic, it would be like living on Vulcan. Which brings me to the new Alice In Chains album…

Lots of folks stopped listening after Layne kicked the bucket. Lots of folks just wouldn’t accept Alice In Chains without him – and for kind of good reason. With such a very unique voice (even on the rare occasion when it wasn’t multi-layered in the production) he offered the distinction of that band’s sound. He also offered it a lot of it’s darkness. Layne was a bit of a weakling – and I don’t mean that in a bad way. The guy couldn’t fight his way out of  addiction, but he had money, and in turn all the support systems in the world at his disposal, including a close and loving family (read the book Grunge Is Dead). What made him stand out from the rest of the rock star addicts who were pulled in and drowned was that he was open about it, and he admitted on several occasions to enjoying that lifestyle. The man knew he was going to die, and basically committed to it by never trying to quit, well, never really trying to quit. Layne is a legend in the grunge scene – because he’s dead.

That’s just the way it is in the art world – people always assume the best of what the rest of your career would have been like had you not died. It’s really a curious juxtaposition of the rest of the human condition and it’s modern pessimism with the world and assumptions. Had Cobain never killed himself and Chris Cornell did people wouldn’t be losing sperm by the gallon over how amazing Nirvana was and comparing them to the likes of bands like the Beatles, it would be Soundgarden’s ‘Badmotorfinger’ making the top ten lists of greatest albums ever between Sgt. Peppers and Saturday Night Fever, well it ain’t like that (did you see what I did there?). I love Layne Staley’s work (or I should say, the work he contributed to), but the truth is that there’s not a lot of it out there, and I think that detail gets muddied up in the long run. Did you know that Elvis Presley, 'The King Of Rock' actually admitted in an interview that he'd never written a song in his entire life?

In the entire Alice In Chains discography there are only 4 songs written solely by Staley – and there’s only one full album of his lyrics out there (Mad Season’s ‘Above’). You can be a flash in the pan and make your mark, ask Jeff Buckley’s corpse – the key is to speak to people, Layne did. Layne embraced being a weakling. Layne identified the weaknesses in other people. Arguably, Layne died a martyr – in a somewhat warped point of view. So in an even more warped point of view, Layne was the Jesus of Alice In Chains, and Cantrell was the God. So to simply shun the rest of the band’s career after Staley’s death just doesn’t really make sense to me.

While I respect a fan’s commitment to a band’s sound and message, I think you also need to look at the bigger picture here and embrace the mortality of the whole thing as well – it’s evolution baby, and it still works, but only because of that dark mud-trudge of an album ‘Alice In Chains’. It’s the album that bridges the gap between the old testament and new. Per witnesses involved in the making of that record Layne’s health had declined so much by the time that album was being recorded that he wasn’t really all that involved in the process (again – read Grunge Is Dead). He wrote a couple of tracks on there and laid down his vocals but the album’s genesis evolved from what was supposed to be a Jerry Cantrell solo record. ‘Alice In Chains’ unwittingly helped lay a foundation for the band to build upon without Staley in the mix.

Two tracks which appear on ‘Alice In Chains’ would become the new Alice In Chains sound with William Duvall as Staley’s replacement. ‘Over Now’ and ‘Heaven Beside Me’. Both contain the formula of Cantrell’s voice as the center piece, and on the last two AIC albums any part of a song that would be written for Staley’s croon would be replaced by the layering of both Cantrell and Duvall singing at the same time, creating an eerily similar likeness (redundant) to Staley’s morose and beautiful voice when singing along with Cantrell, which fortunately for the surviving members of the band was always so layered before that it wasn’t impossible to build a sound around utilizing someone different. It harkens back to the duets of the aforementioned songs on ‘Alice In Chains’ as well as other tracks in the catalogue like ‘Would’ and ‘Don’t Follow’. It’s hard to hear, but Layne was a smaller part of that band than people would really like to admit, and fortunately for the band and it’s true fans, they’ve proven it with their last two albums.

Formulaically ‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here’ is the same album as ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’. They’ve both got that first single with the really catchy and heavy hook (Stone vs. Check My Brain), they’ve both got that wonderfully acoustic rock number as the fourth track (Voices vs. Your Decision), they’ve both got that long drawn out dumpster song that doesn’t start to get really good until you revisit the album three or four years later (The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here vs. Acid Bubble), and they both have that song that flawlessly changes from mediocre hard rock peon to ‘hey this is really good’ at the uplift of a chorus (Low Ceiling vs. Take Her Out). Cantrell steps up to the plate again as the real lead vocalist and Duvall kind of weaves in and out of his words in the background giving them both weight and eeriness as well as that heir of familiarity to the “old” Alice In Chains sound – a conscious and intelligent decision I’m sure as to keep it recognizable and –for lack of a better term – cozy. The two are so woven together that at times it’s difficult to tell whom is singing what, and that can be a good thing. There’s so much going on between the thick palette of instrumentation and vocal melody that it’s almost like this sonic illusion fooling you into thinking you’re actually sitting in the same house you grew up in when in reality you know that it was torn down years ago. Take one thing out of the equation and you’ll probably see it for what it is. So gone are the days of EP’s harboring stripped down gentle acoustics and soft 3 a.m. self-contemplations. The “new” Alice In Chains wouldn’t be able to pull it off without showing the wizard behind the curtain and sounding like someone completely different.

I can tell you this without getting too into it (too late!), if you enjoyed ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’ you’ll enjoy this enough that it’s worth owning. In my opinion it’s a slightly better album. It harbors a bit of a darker tone in that some of the guitar effects pull from the same sonic well as ‘Dirt’, with that cryptic and somewhat Egyptian tone to the riff writing in places – especially the title track. But what surprised me the most was where the album absolutely stands out, and that’s in it’s guitar solos….seriously, and I’m not one of those guys – I’ve never been. Get rid of them, they’re boring I’d always say. Unless it’s Dime or Morello in there sacking up and doing something really cool I’ve always thought of guitar solos as more-times-than-not expendable wanking-filler, you know? Such is not the case with this album, says the skeptic. A few songs were lost on me until Cantrell turns it around halfway through and does some very cool harmonies that turn the entire track up on it’s head – remember the absolutely incredible little ray of light in the middle of the diseased ‘Junkhead’? Well he almost almost pulls it off again on ‘Low Ceiling’, and he busts out the old voicebox guitar effect on ‘Lab Monkey’, something we haven’t heard from them since Jar Of Flies’ ‘Rotten Apple’.

The band showcases their ability to take something morosely dragging along and turn it into a beam of hope on a number of songs here, ‘Breath On A Window’ probably being the best example as it fades out to a hopeful chorus and melody which helps flavor the monotonously good hard rock precession. ‘Phantom Limb’ is arguably the best song the line-up has recorded since their re-emergence, as it’s heavy metal riffing grades down into a slightly droned-out and haunting chorus, and then resets to do it again before almost plodding off into Sabbath waters at the end. ‘Scalpel’ is another summertime acoustic number with amps buried beneath in what has become a trademark sound always bound to make it’s appearance on an AIC album.

It’s a good record, and as a fan of Alice In Chains I probably buy into it, or at least give it a better chance than most, more so because of the nostalgia their sound gives me than anything else. I’m just like every other schmuck out there who burned the candle at both ends after highschool – just longing to get a little taste of “the good-ol’ days” every once in a while, and this album pokes at it enough leak a little bit of it back in in a new way. If I didn’t give a shit about them then this album wouldn’t be the one to change my mind. But it carries the tradition along and that’s it. Doesn’t go anywhere new and doesn’t go anywhere too old. At this point Alice In Chains is just self-maintaining. And for me that’s okay for now, but to be honest I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be listening if the formula stays this way. And stop bitching about the album title, it ain’t your fuckin’ band.

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