Alice In Chains' sixth album, Rainier Fog, delivers more of their inspired signature metallic yet melodic grunge. This time with a twist, even if the riffs feel slightly stale.
William DuVall and Jerry Cantrell's combined vocals have an uncanny ability to conjure the late Layne Staley's otherworldly growl at just the right moment, but for the most part continue to blaze the late Staley-vocal led AIC trail. The one where Cantrell took the lead more often than not on vocals. AIC is is still all Cantrell though when it comes to the guitars. A guitar hero who is often, tragically, overlooked as such, Cantrell is the undisputed master riff writer of the grunge generation. From "Man In The Box," to "Grind," to "Stone," to "The One You Know" Cantrell has proven himself to be a well of brilliantly heavy yet melodic riffs. He's also proven to be a songwriter that not only broke the mold of what a riff-meister should be, but legitimized being a riff-meister who is as well known and respected for writing equally brilliant acoustic guitar songs and riffs, or in a word, "coming soft" as well as hard with his guitars. It was a special niche that many grunge era bands occupied with not only authority, but competency as well as acceptability. Not even Metallica could explore such sonic territory until AIC did it first (surely you remember the backlash that "Unforgiven" unleashed?).
Once Cantrell established his acoustic/electric hybrid chops on Jar of Flies, the acoustic/electric mix began to show up on his subsequent AIC albums (both pre and post Staley) as well as on his solo work. "Voices" being the latest, and one of the greatest, examples of such. Often these tracks (like "Heaven Beside You") became showpieces demonstrating Cantrell's guitar brilliance as well as songwriting talents. Rainier Fog's example of such a song, the aptly titled "Fly," while it's definitely a solid song that captures much of the magic of Cantrell's previous acoustic/electric hybrid guitar work, it just isn't as strong, or (dare I say it) as catchy as "Voices" was. Herein, the seasoned AIC listener, and fan, begins to notice the difference between Rainier Fog and the previous two post-Staley AIC albums. It's a difference that goes in two directions, equally.
While Rainier Fog is loaded with great songs, riffs, melodies, and moods, it lacks that one great album defining song. Every AIC album has one (or two, or three). Facelift had "Man In The Box." Dirt had "Them Bones," "Would?", "Down In A Whole," as well as many others. Alice In Chains had "Grind" and "Heaven Beside You." Black Gives Way to Blue had "Check My Brain" and "Your Decision." The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here had "Stone," and "Voices" (as well as my personal favorite AIC song "Phantom Limb"). Rainier Fog can claim "So Far Under" or maybe "The One You Know" as it's stand out, but barely so as the company they keep isn't as strong, and pales in comparison to the work on the other albums due to the relative weakness of both.
This isn't to say that Rainier Fog is a bad AIC album. It isn't. In fact, it actually dabbles in a bit of experimentation here and there, which is good for the band because it demonstrates that they aren't bored as artists or performers, and still find plenty to inspire them within their chosen genre. It's just that for all the riffs that Cantrell comes up with, none of them particularly stand out, or stand up to, his former genre defining ones.
To be sure, the driving riff of "Red Giant" is pretty damn great, even for what feels like a secondhand Cantrell riff. The repetitive and relatively uninspired riff of "The One You Know" is lackluster at best though. "Drone," with it's Load era Metallica slow swing suffers from a lack of inspired riffing as well. It's 47 second solo helps to redeem the track, but can't save it from the mediocrity of its riffs. "So Far Under," perhaps the closest this album will get to a "Man In The Box," is strong enough on its own to almost single handedly redeem every riff on the entire album. So again, even with the moments of mediocrity, there is still plenty to be dazzled by here, even if the riff-meister well appears to be going through a bit of a level lowering drought.
The aforementioned experimentation on the album might actually be the product of Cantrell himself finding his riff-meister well a little dry. "Never Fade" is (gasp!) slightly punk influenced, and has the closest thing that AIC probably has ever gotten to a "blazing solo." Best thing about "Never Fade" though? It works. It is undoubtedly AIC, but much more airy and closer to mainstream rock than they've ever sounded. This is not a bad thing. It's actually refreshing to hear Cantrell and company sound...happy...?! Album closer "All I Am," brings back the heavy, moody atmospherics which fit the song's lyrics, and the album's overall theme: that of absent friends and younger times, while at the same time closing out the album on a high note songwriting wise. The multi-layered guitars, and, again, lengthy soloing take the song, and the album along with it, into a foggy, yet elevated, territory that AIC rarely occupies. Again, it works. It works very well.
So while the riffs, still sufficiently grungy, begin to show the slow creep of staleness sinking in, AIC remain kings of the grunge pile with Rainier Fog. With the addition of atmospheric breaks, some elevated soloing, and a slight parting of the dark clouds- allowing some light in here and there-Rainier Fog proves that there's still plenty of great music to be made by one of rock's most legendary acts.
Buy Rainier Fog from Amazon here.
Read more of Andy's music writings at Shutter16.com