Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Black Gives Way to Blue: The Return of AIC and resulting format confusion...

There’s nothing like music for taking you back. Seventeen years ago (at the start of my professional career) I was what you might call an angry young man. Music has always provided me with a kind of fuel – and at the time music - specifically the music of Alice In Chains, was fuelling my anger rather nicely. This past two weeks have taken me right back there, but in the best way imaginable.

Back in 1992 I was on some major systems project or other for an energy company, in the employ of Andersen Consulting, now otherwise known as Accenture. I was sharing a flat with a studious American called Floyd and a conscientious, ambitious young lady called Heidi, neither of whom could make head ‘nor tail of me or my anger.

To Floyd & Heidi, that project seemed like the place to be, the pinnacle of professional assignments. To me it just sucked. So much so, I would start my days with a loud blast of AIC’s ‘Dirt’ (I’m talking LOUD and before 8 am). I must have been the flatmate from hell. Belated apologies Floyd & Heidi wherever you are.

For those unfamiliar, Dirt is an absolute classic. It’s unforgiving, relentless, driving, bleak, but as melodic as rock gets. It was my album of the year and AIC was my favourite band then, my fuel of choice.

It was with trepidation then, that I approached the new record by AIC released just a few weeks ago. It was a real surprise to me. I read a gig review in The Guardian while I was on vacation (I had NO IDEA they had reformed). Anyone at all familiar with the group will know why this is more than a little remarkable.

What I loved about AIC is what was makes so many bands special – the blend of two great talents working together – the 2+2 making 5. In AIC’s case this is guitarist and songwriter Jerry Cantrell and, back then in the angry days of 1992 – singer and frontman Layne Staley. Cantrell brought the driving, power-drill guitars, Staley one of the most organic and original voices in rock music. The two also combined for those distinctive harmonies that made the band stand out from anything else from the grunge scene at that time, or since. But Staley was a heavy heroin user and eventually died of an overdose in 2002.

And that is what makes AIC’s revival so remarkable. Staley was essentially irreplaceable, but some years on - has been replaced. The new singer William DuVall (a 42 year old who has been around for years with other bands) not only sounds remarkably like Staley, but of course, fills in perfectly for those harmony parts, that can be heard throughout the new record in all their glory.

Black Gives Way To Blue is a fabulous album that has somehow arrived just at the right time for me personally and for other AIC fans I hope. Nearly 20 years on since I became a fan I was frankly worried I might find it too LOUD, but I don’t at all - though I do prefer the slower tracks. The title track (which features some lovely piano by none other than Elton John) is the best ballad I have heard this year. It’s about death but somehow is utterly life-affirming.

Of course, I had to have this particular record on CD. I could not possibly be satisfied by previewing a new AIC album on Spotify. Not only did the reviews reassure me it was an album good enough to invest in (there are no weak tracks on this album - it's filler free), but I didn’t want to listen to it and think it was ‘just okay’ which is how most stuff sounds to me on Spotify – not because of sound quality issues (I have some pretty good computer speakers) – but because it’s on tap, so I can never quite concentrate on it for some reason.

I didn’t want to download it either, probably because I have all AIC’s previous releases on disc (the last full album being 1995’s self-titled release). This isn’t logical either, because I'm hardly a record collector, even when it comes to my favourite bands. I can only readily find Dirt, as it sits there pride of place on my ‘All Time Classics’ shelf. Where the hell are my ‘Jar of Flies’ and ‘AIC’ albums then? Somewhere in the rubble – either in the ‘transitory cupboard’? (not current, not classic, not yet in the shed) – or surely not – actually in the shed! Or worse, gone.

So, ironically enough, I’m now back on Spotify streaming the back catalogue...convenient isn't the word. There just isn’t one way to access, listen, organise and store music these days and that’s a good thing. But sometimes it drives me crazy.

Music in-box jammed full this week. I’ve been reading about the Pixie’s outstanding re-union gig at Brixton Academy and since I don’t know their music (I’m acutely aware of my ‘music gaps’) I’m really keen to get to it. But then I am enthralled to the new Alice In Chains and Pearl Jam records and enjoying my own personal grunge revival. On the other hand, I bought three albums yesterday (7 Digital’s £5 albums are irresistible) – Editors, Ravonettes and The Flaming Lips. I’ve checked out a few tracks from the first two records and they are red hot. But I'm so enjoying The Temper Trap's 'Conditions' still. I've just received a few interesting playlists from respected music colleagues as well. And I’m still trying to work my way through The Beatles re-masters. Think I’ll just combust, it’s much easier...