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Healing Heartache: The New Incarnation of Alice in Chains on Rebuilding and Honoring the Past

November 1, 2009
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Self-revelatory lyrical descents into the personal purgatories of addiction, guilt, and regret made Alice in Chains one of the most frighteningly honest big-name Seattle grunge rock bands to achieve superstardom in the 1990s.

Songs such as “Man in the Box,” “Would?,” “Them Bones,” and “Down in a Hole” were inconsolable portraits of self-deprecation, disorientation, and decay doused in sly wit, amplified by hellish choruses, twisted hooks ripped by guitarist Jerry Cantrell, and a general hazy, diseased sonic atmosphere— the aural equivalent of sunlight burning through a poisonous gas cloud.

“Ugliness has its own beauty” Cantrell boasted in 2002 after dedicating his solo album Degradation Trip to the late Alice in Chains frontman Layne Staley, who died from a drug overdose of cocaine and heroin within weeks of that album’s release.

Held in limbo for years after that devastating tragedy, Alice began recording as a band again in the fall of 2008, emerging nine months later with the uncharacteristically optimistic album titled Black Gives Way to Blue [Virgin/EMI]: their first full-length studio release in 14 years, and the first to feature new co-lead singer/guitarist William DuVall, who shares vocal duties with Cantrell.

Even through bursts of unexpected musical luminescence (generated by tabla pings, piano strings courtesy of Sir Elton John, dive-bombing guitar screams, and three-part harmonies), Blue secretes classic Alice in Chains sonic sludge.

“Those guys lost their friend, and they’re trying to make the music they love—and make a great record,” producer Nick Raskulinecz says. “To help them do that, I had to get back into the headspace of what it was like to first hear Alice in Chains. But I also knew this record had to be contemporary, so I didn’t want it as much to sound like 1992 as feel like 1992.”

It wasn’t easy, especially when it came to the album’s title track—a tribute to Staley. “It was the track that we kept putting off,” drummer Sean Kinney confesses. “When Jerry started singing the song in the studio, he was having a hard time with it; he was breaking down. I had an anxiety attack, and Nick was crying. It was pretty heavy, but we were like, ‘Keep rollin.’ Let’s get this handled.’”

Elton John’s performance plucked at the band’s heartstrings even more. “We had the song charted out, and I remember going into the studio before Elton came in and seeing the music on the piano and saying, ‘This is so surreal,’” Kinney says. “The very first concert that Layne ever attended, when he was 7, was an Elton John show.”

Throughout the recording process, Raskulinecz and engineer Paul Figueroa zeroed in on one of Alice’s most identifiable musical assets— Cantrell’s guitar tone—and proceeded to build layers of performances for the guitarist’s tracks.

“Jerry would do four passes on a ‘rhythmic’ concept, performing virtually the same idea four separate times,” engineer Figueroa says. “Of those four passes, we’d pan two to the left, two to the right, and then we would do another pass for a track that would rest in the center.”

Employing a Little Labs splitter, team Cantrell-Raskulinecz-Figueroa mixed and matched a combination of amps and cabinets. Those included a Bogner Fish four-channel preamp (set to the high-gain “Brown” channel), a Bogner Uberschall tube amp, a mid- 1960s Orange amp, a Vox AC30 (its “tremolo” channel was put to good use for the inspirational “When the Sun Rose Again”), 100-watt and 30-watt Mesa/Boogie cabinets, a 100-watt Marshall gray checkerboard cabinet, a 60-watt Marshall cabinet with Celestion V30s, and a 65-watt white Marshall JCM 800 combo with two Celestion G12-65 speakers. Cantrell played his trusty G&L Rampage electric guitars and a Gibson Les Paul. For overdubs and solos, Cantrell generally used a Gibson SG firing either a Hiwatt Custom Lead 30 or a Vox AC30.

“Usually there were three amps running four different cabinets,” says Raskulinecz. “We would handpick amps for each track to achieve the tone Jerry had in his mind, so we weren’t simply mirroring the exact same tone with every pass.”

This billowing tower of noise was captured by a matrix of close-miking techniques with a variety of microphones such as a Neumann U 67, Soundelux 251, Neumann U 47 fet (Raskulinecz’s “alltime favorite guitar mic because its large diaphragm really gives you a full bandwidth of sound—both high and low frequencies,” he says), Shure SM57s, and two Mojave vacuum-tube condensers (MA-200, MA-100).

The team tinkered with their Neve 8058’s 31102 preamp/EQ, but proper mic placement at the source was far more important in the grand scheme. “If I needed to garner certain midrange guts, low-end growls, or high-end brightness,” Figueroa says, “I’d start an inch or so from the grill of the speaker, near the cone, gradually moving [the mic] on its axis from the center [of the cone] to the paper until I achieved a nice balance.”

“Tone and clarity were key,” Raskulinecz adds. “One of the reasons we didn’t use any room mics for Jerry’s tracks because his amps were set on ‘stun.’ With all the layering going on, we wouldn’t have gotten proper definition.”

Due to the sheer number of tracks they’d handled, the production team ran Digidesign’s Pro Tools 7.4 at 96kHz on a Mac Dual Quad Core 8. On occasion Raskulinecz and Figueroa locked together two Studer tape machines (running 2-inch ATR, no noise reduction) and recorded some of Sean Kinney’s drum and Cantrell’s acoustic guitar tracks to “reel in high end and add depth to the low end,” Figueroa says. “Tape worked best for songs that were slow and open.”

“And tape worked well with acoustic guitar on the title song,” Raskulinecz says. “The song was back to basics in a way: It was deeply personal for Jerry to perform it, and the richness and warmth of the tape added a timeless quality to the sound that we were looking for.”

In the end, writing and recording Black Gives Way to Blue was a muchneeded catharsis for everyone involved. “What we sing about really happened to us,” Kinney says. “Our friend really died. His family deals with it everyday, and we do, too. When you get kicked down to your knees, how do you get up and try to live in a better world, move forward, and do it with honor? That’s all we’re trying to do.”

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