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Alice in Chains - Rainier Fog Music Album Reviews

The grunge stalwarts’ sixth album revisits their Seattle roots, with a sound harkening back to the early ’90s, when they were swept up in a wave of Pacific Northwest acts achieving international fame.

Early promotional efforts surrounding the release of Rainier Fog, the sixth studio album from Alice in Chains, centered around the group’s birthplace of Seattle. The quartet played an acoustic set atop the Space Needle, as well as a secret show at the Crocodile, the local venue co-owned by drummer Sean Kinney. To cap it off, the Seattle Mariners held an “Alice in Chains Night,” during which guitarist and vocalist Jerry Cantrell threw out the ceremonial first pitch as the band’s 1992 hit “Would?” played over Safeco Field’s PA system.

This campaign makes sense for an album named after the volcano that looms over the Seattle skyline. But it’s also a fitting reflection of a record that feels like an attempt to trace the group’s musical roots, with a sound harkening back three decades to the time when they were swept along with the wave of bands from their area code achieving international stardom.

Some of Alice in Chains’ efforts to this end are essentially sentimental. They laid down the basic tracks for Rainier Fog at Studio X, the Seattle studio formerly known as Bad Animals, where they recorded their self-titled album from 1995. There’s also a guest appearance, on the abrasive blues track “Drone,” by Chris DeGarmo, the co-founder of prog-metal titans Queensrÿche, who served as Cantrell’s touring guitarist in 1998. But the core of Rainier Fog melds the grimy, glammy elements of their 1990 debut Facelift with the thicker doom-metal approach that has dominated the group’s last few studio albums.

Unfortunately, recapturing their heyday was always going to be an impossible feat, because Alice in Chains have changed dramatically since their first LP. Gone are the key elements of their most successful era: the sinister growl of vocalist Layne Staley, who died of an overdose in 2002, and the fluid yet tensile basslines of Mike Starr, who left the band in 1993, long before his own death in 2011. As capable as their respective replacements, William DuVall and Mike Inez, are, these new members’ styles have effectively turned Alice in Chains into a different band.

DuVall, who joined the fold in 2006, had a particularly notable impact on their sound. Like Staley, he has a voice that blends well with Cantrell’s, but his singing for Alice in Chains is far less distinctive, endowed with neither his predecessor’s bluesy edge nor the soulful sting DuVall brings to his his other band, Comes With the Fall. On Rainier Fog, he only occasionally drifts to the surface, on the growling title track as well as the songs that bookend the album, “The One You Know” and the slowly decaying finale, “All I Am.”

Where Alice in Chains do succeed in bringing themselves full circle, it’s by cutting down on the acoustic elements and pop influences that surfaced on their 1992 EP Sap. Rainier Fog often acts like a cudgel, pounding DuVall and Cantrell’s sludgy guitars and the hip-swiveling grind of the rhythm section directly into the listener’s temporal lobe. This leads to some spectacular moments, like the downward-spinning chorus of “So Far Under,” the sputtering downstrokes on “The One You Know,” and the undulating waves of guitar on anti-Trump anthem “Red Giant.”

Still, for all its volume and bursts of power, Rainier Fog feels like an unnecessary regression. Alice in Chains were showing signs of growth on their previous DuVall-era albums, 2009’s Black Gives Way to Blue and 2013’s The Devil Put the Dinosaurs Here, whose jumps between heavier tunes and gentler fare were abrupt but at least attempted to strike a balance. Here, with the exception of the lighters-in-the-sky power balladry of “Fly,” the more melodious passages on tracks like “Maybe” and “All I Am” are still countered by blunt-force guitars and blaring volume.

It’s hard to fault the band for trying to recapture a bit of their past grunge-era glory. No matter how far away its members move from their old stomping grounds (Cantrell and Inez both live in California now, while DuVall resides in Atlanta), they will always be thought of as a Seattle band. And they’ve been called back to the city frequently over the past 20 years, to reckon with the deaths of their bandmates and, more recently, their friend Chris Cornell. Those experiences only serve to pull those bonds tighter. But just as the city that birthed them has changed dramatically in the years since their first album hit the Billboard charts, so have Alice in Chains. They’re no longer the same band they once were, and that evolution is something to be extended, not erased.

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