“We made a unique record that’s completely different from anything we ever did before. It encapsulates a period of time, like all records do. You see growth and that the band is moving ahead in new territory that we haven’t been to before, but we haven’t lost our identity.” So Jerry Cantrell said of The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, Alice In Chains’ fifth studio album, and the second of the second half of their career, with William DuVall on vocals and second guitar.
On the surface it’s a standard muso’s response to a gentle request for a description of their new product: it covers all bases, and promises the thrill of something new alongside reassuring familiarity. Happily, this is one of the rare occasions when it’s also absolutely true.
Despite its title, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is no relic. It has a big, contemporary sound about it and a new and different energy, but there are deep sonic echoes of some of Alice In Chains’ cornerstone songs. It is also, generically, a heavy rock record, and has lots of the timelessness that the genre confers. The band that comes most to mind as a comparison is Black Sabbath in the period from Vol 4 to Sabotage: epic, spacey, riff-led and with a vast mournfulness as its major theme.
Were it not obligatory to do so, it would be very easy to review the record without mention of their past, either as one of the defining bands of the Seattle years, or for the contributions of one of its most troubled stars, the late Layne Staley (Alice In Chains lost another founding member to drugs when Mike Starr died in 2011). Staley’s talent was such that it will always be missed, and he gave Alice In Chains a dark grandeur that they don’t have now.
But they haven’t made the mistake of trying to replicate the gifts he brought. Instead, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here reflects the influence of Jerry Cantrell, which in truth is the band’s defining one. He is at the heart of everything they do here. The record’s offbeat title is more than just a very metal phrase. It refers to a somewhat strained piece of thinking from somewhere on America’s religious right, a counter-Darwinian theory that fossils were planted deep in the earth by Satan in order to undermine the literal truth of the Bible, a notion that Cantrell holds up to the cold light of day, his scorn evident in the chorus line: ‘The devil put dinosaurs here/Jesus don’t like a queer/ No problem with faith/Just fear.’
By the time that lush and lucid title song arrives, the band have already laid out their case. The record opens with Hollow, typical of the huge and sludgy riffs in which they specialise, and already familiar to much of their fanbase, if 1.5 million YouTube views of the song’s video are anything to go by.
It’s a theme that’s echoed in the lengthy Stone, which opens with a rumbling, repeating bass line reminiscent of Black Sabbath, before bringing in the same sort of repeating chord structure. DuVall and Cantrell gel perfectly over it: it’s often hard to tell one voice from the other when they come together to emphasise certain lines. Cantrell adds some fluid, clean lead breaks that move the song along, a trick he repeats throughout the record to tremendous effect. It’s hard to think he’s ever played better.
Set between those two monolithic rock songs is Pretty Done, which has some trippy sonics that would do credit to – whisper it – Hawkwind, and another of those downbeat, earworm hooks that have been a signature of Alice In Chains through the years. There’s a density of sound to much of the album, but it’s textured rather than bludgeoning, and the heaviest moments retain a sullen power. Lab Monkey has more than a touch of Sabbath’s Electric Funeral about it, Hung On A Hook channels Down In A Hole, while Phantom Limb steps jauntily into more trad metal territory.
Cantrell has always used acoustic guitars exceptionally well, and here they bring the light to cast some long shadows. Voices cuts through in sweet and sharp relief in the early part of the album, and later, the brilliant close harmonies of Low Ceiling and the subtly textured Scalpel press on into the ‘new territory’ that Cantrell promised. The clincher is Choke, which has some of the yawning emptiness and grand scale of Staley’s era. Duvall is a low-key presence but his voice is a lovely fit.
It’s been an unlikely resurrection, but just as those who peddle the argument that ‘Satan put the fossils there’ like to say, you can’t keep a good man down.