A band is as often defined by its personalities as it is by its sound. For Alice in Chains, Layne Staley was a big part of both.
Staley’s voice combined with band co-founder Jerry Cantrell’s chord progressions and vocal harmonies to create a distinctive style that set the Seattle band apart from such hometown peers and grunge harbingers as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Staley’s seemingly dark and literally reclusive personality, accompanied by an ultimately fatal heroin addiction, was part of the band’s mystique, for good or ill. His problems had kept the band in frequent limbo.
When he died in 2002, at age 34, many thought that would be the end of Alice in Chains.
But after four years that included a couple of reportedly powerful reunion shows, the band re-emerged in 2006 with hardcore punk and hard rock veteran William DuVall as frontman. The band has recorded two albums since then, “Black Gives Way To Blue” and last year’s “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here.” The first post-Staley release sold more than 500,000 copies. The second one peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard top 200 albums chart.
There are still people who flinch at the idea of Alice in Chains without Staley. But DuVall said that the band, which plays Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre on Wednesday, has successfully proved its case over the past eight years.
DuVall, Cantrell, drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Inez knew there was very little precedent for continued international success after a band changes lead singers. AC/DC is one of the very few, having thrived after Bon Scott died and Brian Johnson joined.
“None of that was lost on us back in ’06, and certainly not through ’07 and ’08 as we were writing ‘Black Gives Way To Blue,’ ” DuVall, 46, said. “But what also was not lost on us was the truth of what we were doing, every night that we hit the stage. Through all those different time zones, through all those different climates, through all those different languages and language barriers, it was the four of us that had to face one another and then face the crowd and lay it down on them.
“And that’s what we did, over and over and over again, through the entire year of 2006. I think we hit over 30 countries in that year alone, and this was when promoters were certainly not falling all over themselves to throw great offers at us.
“There was a tremendous amount of personal, financial and emotional investment on the part of all of the members of this band to prove our case primarily to ourselves and then, by extension, to the audience.”
The first thing that emerges in listening to the newer Alice albums is the harmony mix. The most unique part of the band’s sound remains intact. That was never a problem for DuVall, from Atlanta, whose long musical history includes Comes with the Fall, Madfly, Bl’ast, Neon Christ — and Cantrell’s solo work.
Cantrell befriended the members of Comes with the Fall in the early 2000s, playing shows with the band around Hollywood, California, then enlisting it to tour with him as both opening act and backing band to support his album, “Degradation Trip.”
That tour happened in 2001 and 2002, through the U.S., Canada and the U.K. — five and six days a week of intense one-nighters of Comes with the Fall music, Cantrell’s album and Alice songs.
With the latter music, “it didn’t come as tremendously difficult from a harmonizing perspective, though individually speaking, some of those songs and the bits Layne was responsible for doing are some of the most difficult things you can sing.”
In the studio, the word is “meticulous,” said DuVall, who has a philosophy degree with an emphasis on religion from Georgia State University.
“We are harder on ourselves than anyone in the outside world could ever be on us,” he said of the band and its production team. “You’re going to get a meticulous result. That’s what it takes. You get these harmonies really tight. You layer them very precisely, down to where syllables are cutting off, down to where the sibilance of ‘s’ sounds is exactly the same, down to where your enunciation of a vowel sound is exactly the same.”
DuVall’s voice is not Staley’s voice, but it is a strong, rangy and resonant thing of its own. And the band has worked to keep its signature harmony sound while still embracing the differences.
“I think we’ve been successful in maintaining most or all of the qualities of what people like about that sonic signature, while also just by virtue of the fact that it’s a different person there, not sounding exactly like it,” he said. “Even though people do say and pay the compliment, ‘It sounds exactly like [the original lineup],’ it really doesn’t. It’s its own thing, but I appreciate the spirit in which they’re trying to pay this compliment, because we are trying to maintain that sonic footprint.”
Soon, Alice in Chains puts down that sonic footprint in Roanoke.