Alice in Chains, Scala, London
Wild Beasts, Hoxton Hall, London
What do old metal bands do when their front man dies? Bring in a new singer ...
Sunday 09 August 2009
The self-consciously serious Sub Pop scowlers never had any time for Alice in Chains back in the day. The reason for the grungers' distrust was probably twofold. First, they went to a major label too soon, without enduring the requisite indie purgatory. Second, that name made them sound like some poodle-haired posse of Sunset Strip floozies, third on the bill to Cinderella or Poison.
None of which stopped them selling 17 million copies of their second album. 1992's Dirt is a gloomy masterpiece of the era. It's a solipsistic, draw-the-curtains kind of record, a medium-'g' gothic meditation on addiction, mortality and loneliness from singer Layne Staley, backed by Jerry Cantrell's smoke-blackened guitars, playing Iommi to Staley's Ozzy.
Black Sabbath are the main touchstone for Alice in Chains. There's the same taste of red wine and downers, the same feeling of being inside a slow-lurching machine. And it's never more obvious than in tonight's opener, "Rain When I Die". When the chilling close-harmony cadences of its intro, oddly reminiscent of the Martians in War Of The Worlds, have subsided, the first words sung are "Is she ready to know my frustration?", a direct echo down the decades of Sabbath's "Paranoid" ("Finished with my woman cos she couldn't help me with my mind ...")
They aren't sung by Layne Staley. In the mid-late 1990s, Staley's descent into heroin dependence meant that Alice in Chains more or less wound up as a going concern. He died of a speedball overdose in 2002, his body left undiscovered for a fortnight. Shortly beforehand, one of his arms withered and useless, he gave a gruesomely candid interview to an Argentinian journalist. "I know I'm near death," he told Adriana Rubio. "I did crack and heroin for years. I never wanted to end my life this way ... my liver is not functioning, and I'm throwing up all the time and shitting my pants. It's the worst pain in the world. Dope sick hurts the entire body." It's not a glamorous epitaph, but it's possibly of greater lasting usefulness than Cobain's inscrutable blam.
Old metal bands never die. They just bring in a new singer. Jerry Cantrell was always a co-front man, and now he duets with the hired lungs of William DuVall (ex-Comes With The Fall). And, of course, there's a new record, Black Gives Way To Blue. Their first in 14 years, it's mined from the same seam as Dirt: despondency and close harmonies.
Dirt itself is represented by eight of its 13 tracks, making up half the set. It's still a potent brew of sorrowful sludge-metal, making it all the more incongruous when the custard-haired Cantrell yells "How the fuck ya doin, London Town?" as they grind into another misery-rock monster. They peak with the curt and kinetic "Them Bones", its off-kilter time signature adding to its neck-snapping power, and DuVall doing his best vent-dummy job on words which, as Staley knew back in '92, were sure to prove prophetic: "I feel so alone, gonna end up a big old pile of them bones ..."
Wild Beast (below) are, without question, the second-best band to come out of Kendal. The fact that British Sea Power are the first, masks the fact that it's a pretty sparse field, but let's not dwell on that. The rise of the Lake District quartet has been a slow burner. Flagged up by NME as ones to watch in 2007, it's with their second album on Domino, Two Dancers, that people are starting to pay attention. The most startling weapon in their armoury is the remarkable voice of Hayden Thorpe, whose skylarking falsetto recalls Antony Hegarty and Billy MacKenzie, and is offset by the rasping tones of bassist Tom Fleming.
The venue is a beautiful bijou East End music hall, the sort of place to which one imagines the Ripper's victims coming to blow their earnings, and perhaps solicit some more. To the untrained ear, Wild Beasts may sound as though they crave a wider expanse as their backdrop, but they're not just another calculated Editors/White Lies bigger-is-better bunch. Indeed, they're often as brittle and tight as a rockabilly trio.
Their current name is a loose translation of the original, Les Fauves, taken for the artistic movement. They wear it well. They're almost deranged, just about keeping a British lid on it all. If you stick around for the sparkling – and gloriously titled – single "Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants", you're rewarded with some unexpected sweetness, much like one of their native mint-cakes.
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