There’s a knee-jerk reaction that effects many people concerning the return of beloved properties and entities from popular culture. Whenever a TV show is renewed from limbo, or a movie sequel/reboot makes it to theaters, the gut impulse tends to be to judge them with particular rigor, even when unwarranted. Granted, those movies may not be as great as their predecessors, nor may those shows bear an exact resemblance to previous incarnations. All the same, out of hand dismissal never helps anyone, and is far more detrimental than any form of desperate hope or nostalgia-goggled bias.
All this is to say that I wish I could say the new Alice in Chains album is better than it is. AiC is the perfect musical equivalent for the examples I gave above: after a 14 year hiatus that saw the birth of numerous side projects and the tragic death of lead singer Layne Staley, guitarist Jerry Cantrell and his cohorts, with Come With The Fall frontman William DuVall in tow, resumed their previous moniker and set about producing new music. The album they returned with, ‘Black Gives Way to Blue,’ even seemed to signify a rejection of the mindset I previously maligned, as it met with respectable critical acclaim and strong sales. The odds, it seemed, had been beaten: Alice in Chains were back.
‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here’ feels a bit like what ‘Black Gives Way to Blue’ could have been, the cynically received failure that, four years ago, wasn’t to be. Granted, I do feel a little ill at ease, degrading Alice in Chains’ latest within the scope of their broader history, as I could never really call myself a fan. Certainly I appreciated their sound and thematic focuses, and enjoyed their singles on the radio as much as anyone, but that’s literally been the extent of my personal investment in the band. Even so, an Alice in Chains layman like myself can tell that, whether paired against the likes of ‘Dirt’ or even ‘Black Gives Way to Blue,’ ‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here’ just comes up lacking.
A few songs shine through, granted, just enough to highlight the failings of the others. Album opener “Hollow” is every bit as evocative as the album title, conveying an oppressive sense of decay and decline that feels surprisingly personal. It’s easy to read into lines like “All your colors turn to grey,” and the claustrophobic imagery deepens the desperation of DuVall’s plight: “Harder to say what I really mean… / Can’t really say how you lost your mind.”
These very struggles are ultimately what consume ‘Dinosaurs,’ reducing it to a forgettable trudge of tired lyrical premises and samey guitar grinds. At their height in the early ’90s, Alice in Chains weren’t afraid to embrace varying tempos and beats, which allowed for a more expansive range between the likes of “Down in a Hole” and “Hate to Feel.” Even ‘Black Gives Way…’ found success by pushing the band’s sound to its limits. Little of that range makes an appearance on ‘Dinosaurs,’ as a lull of repetition sets in soon after the title track and carries on until just before the end. There’s little I have to say about anything between “Lab Monkey” and “Hung on a Hook,” other than you can pretty much guess the thrust of the songs’ lyrics by their respective titles. When “Scalpel” opens up sounding nearly like an acoustic cover of the track that preceded it, “Breath on a Window,” then it’s apparent that variety is not a major commodity here.
I was inclined to accuse “Voices” and “Choke” of over-similarity as well, though I think that has more to do with them, along with “Hollow,” being the only genuinely good songs on the album. The rest of ‘Dinosaurs’ is a relatively competent repetitious slog, except for an oddly pervasive tone of hope, embodied by swells of guitars and a general sense that it all should be much heavier than it is, that clashes wildly with the lyrics. I’ve only tangentially touched on the lyrical content, so as to spare you tepid, borderline nonsensical allusions such as “Breath on a window / Showing Tic-Tac-Toe.” The title track in particular just feels like a half-hearted attempt at provocation, the grunge equivalent of preaching to the choir.