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"There was never a moment when I was sitting at a table with the band and they asked, 'Would you like to be the new singer for Alice in Chains?'" DuVall says. "It was more like, 'We're playing this tribute' or 'We have some European dates booked, would you like to sing?'"
Before he knew it, DuVall had played 23 countries as Alice in Chains' frontman. At first, the pairing was a tribute to the music that the group had recorded with Staley, but it was apparent that the new lineup had its own synergy. New riffs and new ideas were forming. They became a new band on the road and documented as many of their impromptu song ideas as possible. Between tours, scraps of audio and video turned into songs.
In September '09, Alice in Chains released Black Gives Way to Blue (Virgin), a new album that finds DuVall and Cantrell in twin roles singing and playing guitar. Fourteen years had passed since the group's self-titled album was released in '95, but when placed side-by-side, the albums sound as though they could have been recorded at the same time. DuVall's voice blends smoothly with Cantrell's low guitar and vocal harmonies. The warped-record riff of "Check My Brain" laid over the acoustic remorse of "Your Decision" bares the mark of classic Alice in Chains. And the slow, bottom-heavy punk dirge on the DuVall-penned "Last of My Kind" hits hard — yet still falls seamlessly within an emotional range that culminates with the album's title track, featuring Sir Elton John's wilting voice and piano.
The group's lineup is filled out by original drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Inez. Cantrell writes much of the material, but DuVall plays a significant and growing role in the songwriting as well. "Alice in Chains is nothing without all four people; that's how it was with Layne and that's the case now," DuVall says. "The difference now is that I'm a guitar player first. I'm able to approach the songwriting process from different angles. Cantrell can play me some weird, idiosyncratic piece of Cantrell-ness, and I can play it right back and say, 'What about this?'"
Replacing a frontman with such a distinct style as Staley's is daunting, but DuVall has eased into the new role. "If there had been that one formal discussion saying, 'Would you like to help us resurrect Alice in Chains?' I would have thought twice," he admits. "But we were just playing for the fans who care about it and hadn't seen it in a long time. For all we knew it was going to be one more victory lap and goodbye."
The reaction to DuVall has been equally divided between supporters and naysayers, ranging from Staley disciples to old-school punk purists who question DuVall's motives. "It was surprising [when he joined Alice in Chains] but it wasn't shocking because he'd already had some commercial success with the Dionne Farris song," says Atlantan G.G. King, who used to sing lead for Carbonas and played drums for Neon Christ reunion shows in the past. "Even though he left hardcore behind him a long time ago, he's still a great musician and I respect the hell out of him."
An anonymous Alice in Chains fan attempted to diss DuVall's vocals, commenting on the blog Musing for Amusement that "William Duvall's singing compared to Layne's is like comparing Bob Dylan to Pavorotti [sic]. Dylan CAN'T sing, he knows that. William doesn't yet."
But one thing is certain: The charts have responded kindly. Last week, "Your Decision" sat in the No. 2 spot on Billboard's rock songs chart. In Atlanta, the group had to book a second Tabernacle show to meet the ticketing demand. "As you're out there and growing up in public and going through all of these things, there's bound to be a lot of discussion from both sides," DuVall says. "We're aware of that, but at the same time there's a gig to play every night. There's no time to dwell on the things that would make you second-guess yourself."
DuVall's evolution from Atlanta's underground to Alice in Chains' frontman finds him performing for the biggest audiences he's ever seen, which is exactly where he wants to be. Second-guessing his music, however, is a burden he left behind a long time ago.
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