"What you wrote before, or what you did before, doesn't mean shit because it's done. You're not gonna redo it. Songwriting always starts the same way, you're starting with an absolute zero."
These are the words of Jerry Cantrell, founder and songwriter of Alice in Chains, the alternative-metal hybrid group that rose to prominence as part of the Nineties' Seattle-based musical movement marketed by media outlets and record labels as "grunge rock." This counterculture upheaval — led by bands like Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Nirvana — killed the poofy-haired, spandex-laden, pop-infused antics of Eighties glam rock, and filled the radio waves with raw sounds and emotions that were mostly kept hush from mainstream audiences by the major-label corporate machine.
Though most Seattle bands found distaste in the "grunge" moniker — as soon as the powers that be got wise to the genre's profitability and began to commodify the hell out of it, signing a legion of watered-down soundalike latecomers — there's no denying that the movement as a whole inspired a cultural and musical revolution, sparking a flame that would ignite edgier content across all facets of entertainment. But that was then — and Alice in Chains are not the same band they were in the Nineties, nor do they want to be.
After dominating the airwaves throughout the Nineties with a trifecta of influential studio releases — Facelift (1990), Dirt (1992) and Alice in Chains (1995) — the band faced the unthinkable in 2002 when lead singer Layne Staley passed away from a drug overdose. The group — guitarist/singer Cantrell, bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney — reemerged in 2006 with a new singer, William DuVall, and in 2009 with a new album, Black Gives Way to Blue, and new stylistically evolved sound that added a deep layer of groovy muck to their music's signature dream-like haziness. Their songs had a different energy, but not so much so that the band lost its identity. The Alice in Chains of today and the Alice in Chains we knew in the Nineties are two different, yet connected, entities that share the same essence, like Siamese twins with contrasting personalities.
"It's about all of the beauty and all of the ugliness, all of the strengths and all of the weaknesses, all of the achievements, all of the losses," Cantrell shares about the band's overall approach to songwriting. "The music is very human. I guess that's all I could say about it. That was kind of the goal, to write material that hit on a deeper level."
What initially attracted Alice in Chains to hardcore punk–turned–hard rocker DuVall was his unique perspective, and ability to add his own creative vibrancy and energy to the band's music — instead of attempting to mimic the inimitable Staley. Bringing DuVall into the fold was not about finding a ringer, instead it was the beginning of writing a brand-new chapter in the group's storied history. The latest entry to that catalog is their new full-length release, Rainier Fog, (due August 24th) which has connected the band's past with its present in a special way.
The bulk of the basic tracks for the new record were laid down in the band's hometown of Seattle at Studio X, formerly known as Bad Animals Studio. (The rest of the LP was completed at producer Nick Raskulinecz's studio in Nashville, with final sessions taking place at Henson Studios in Hollywood.) This marked the first time Alice in Chains recorded there since cutting their 1995 self-titled album, the third and final LP to be released with Staley. Coincidentally, Rainier Fog is the third album to be recorded with DuVall.
"We didn't intend this. We realized it after the fact," says Cantrell. "There was some kind of kismet lined up with that."
The album opener "The One You Know" kicks things off in grand style with a punchy opening that unleashes a hammering half-time riff, which is gracefully balanced with a classic Alice in Chains chorus melody. When questioned about the intention behind the song's lyrics — which begin with the cryptic lines "I'm a little alike/You before things have changed/In a compass I ride/All this feels rearranged/Tell me, does it matter/If I'm still here, or I'm gone?/Shifting to the after/An imposter, I'm not the one you know" — Cantrell keeps his cards close to his chest.
"People have such different interpretations of things," he says. "That's the way that we've always written in this band, some things are kind of direct, but more often than not it's a little more obscure and multilayered. Kind of like a collage rather than a straight storyline. What did you get out of it?"
I offer my interpretation of the song: that on the surface it's seemingly about the band's evolution, a statement that Alice in Chains is no longer the band they once were, yet something recognizable remains.
"I think that's a great explanation," Cantrell responds. "It may or may not be what I wrote the song about. It's interesting, the bare-bone nugget of it is hard to say sometimes because I'm not in that space where I wrote that tune anymore.
"A piece can evolve and so can your own perception. It's cooler when people have their own ideas about what stuff is about, that way it's more personal. I've always enjoyed material like that. Where there's no clear answer."
Like "The One You Know," Rainier Fog songs such as "Drone," "Deaf Ears Blind Eyes" and "So Far Under" deal in heavy grooves and dreary vibes, while the title track is a slap-you-in-the-face rock number and "Red Giant" is the album's perfect storm, combining queasy sludge with an explosive chorus reminiscent of the band's early sound. Alice in Chains balance all this heaviness with bright acoustic tracks like "Fly" and the angelic "Maybe." All told, Rainier Fog delivers something for old and new fans alike, and leaves listeners with a feeling of great anticipation, and optimism, about what the future holds for the Seattle band.
"I mean it, man: I'm completely proud of every fuckin' song on this record," says Cantrell. "They're all different but they fit together as a cohesive piece of work. It's a real album."
Cantrell offers one final reflection. "Making music is a difficult process," he says. "But it's very fulfilling to go through it and come on the other side with a body of work you're really proud of. To have millions of people on this planet fuckin' dig your stuff, to be affected by it. I think the older you get, the more precious that is. The more you really fucking appreciate that."