Two weeks ago, Alice in Chains released their fifth album, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, their second in nearly 20 years and second since singer Layne Staley died. Dealbreaker or beautiful dark twisted fantasy? Because so many of their vocal lines were doubled or sung wholesale by co-frontman Jerry Cantrell, they were able to experiment with a Staley soundalike, William DuVall, to eerily perfunctory results on 2009’s Black Gives Way to Blue. Dinosaurs is better, now over the hump of worrying whether fans will embrace a non-Staley Alice in Chains and unafraid that an acoustic-driven pop song like “Voices” will be seen as an affront to Staley’s grave. But is the stigma a bad thing?
Hard rock, a male-dominated genre historically not known for its tastefulness or restraint, is where a lot of hypotheticals get answered surrounding a new singer. A few weeks back, former Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland found out at the same time as any of us that his ex-bandmates hired Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington to front them at KROQ’s Weenie Roast festival, to sing Weiland’s songs and use the STP name. Weiland, somewhat understandably, didn’t have any reason to believe their recent spat was one of permanence, considering the band’s past history of breaking up and making up. But in a missive on his website, he described being hurt and looking at legal options about the band using the Pilots mantle for the Bennington stint. Wide-ranging speculation that he can no longer hit the notes on their best-known songs likely doesn’t help. That said, fans are far more likely to take to an already-established frontman like Bennington than a total stranger fronting their beloved band.
Weiland is no stranger to fronting a beloved band himself, as the frontman of Velvet Revolver, which is otherwise made up of classic-era Guns N’ Roses members. But he’d probably argue that they had the decency to change their name, whether Axl controls it or not. When Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell fronted three ex-Rage Against the Machine members in Audioslave, there was no sign of bad blood, and they even took to covering Soundgarden and Rage tunes in concert, an especially generous move considering Cornell is not known for rapping. (One of the Audioslave remakes, “Killing in the Name,” is more a collection of chanted mantras than a rap song anyway.)
Alice in Chains, whether they realize it or not, are working off the one true model where a band remained just as successful after their original singer died: AC/DC. In fact, the Australian band got even bigger after Bon Scott passed in a freak accident in 1980. Brian Johnson took up the role of vocalist for Back in Black the same year Bon died, coarsening Scott’s primal screech and emboldening the band’s melodic capacity on such hits as “You Shook Me All Night Long” and “Back in Black.” The album’s title and all-black cover signified mourning for Scott, which one wants to think of as a strategy. But as the second-best-selling album of all time, it certainly helps that Back in Black is seen as a triumph over tragedy, a reunion rather than a cash-grab. It also helps that it arrived in a less punitive era — in fact, Scott’s parents encouraged the band to go on with a new singer. In 2013, Staley’s estate is currently tossing legal threats at Alice in Chains.
In punk and hardcore, lineup changes are more than common, from Black Flag’s multiple famous graduates (Keith Morris, formerly of Circle Jerks, is currently enjoying a resurgence of indie fame with OFF! and Henry Rollins has become, well, Henry Rollins) to the Dillinger Escape Plan’s shifting lineup that at one point included Faith No More’s Mike Patton in front. The 1970s were known for rock and roll excess leading to more than one lineup change, particularly in prog-rock, where King Crimson was a revolving door for Robert Fripp’s bandmates and Genesis featured not one but two future superstars in Peter Gabriel (who became somewhat of prog’s David Byrne, going on to take funk and worldbeat seriously in a Western context) and Phil Collins (the ’80s lush-pop nut we know started as their damn drummer). In both hardcore and prog (especially a band like Dillinger that combines them), vocal signature isn’t really the focal point. Atonal screaming is there for rapping, rhythmic feel and intensity in hardcore; while words are just a formality in prog, stuffed between solos and multipartite arrangements. Someone like Fripp rules his band, or as is the case with Dillinger’s sole constant member Ben Weinman, both guitarists.
And then there’s another, much bigger case of a guitarist with the power and name recognition to oust his singers. Van Halen, a band named after its two non-singing members — one of which is known as its biggest talent and one of the greatest virtuosos in all of rock — had no problem selling the whiny Sammy Hagar in the ’80s after fun-loving David Lee Roth split. This grew more complicated after they juggled bringing both Hagar and Roth back at different times, as well as a mercifully brief dark spot where Extreme’s pro-life yucko Gary Cherone filled in for one dismal album. Over time, VH fans have more and more agreed upon the Roth albums as the canon best, and their dreams were finally requited with A Different Kind of Truth last year, Roth’s first album with the band since 1984. Of course, nothing in Van Halen can ever be quite just happy. It was the first Van Halen album to be released without longtime noncombatant bassist Michael Anthony, who after years of loyally putting up with this crap was ousted in favor of Eddie’s own son Wolfgang.
At once it’s these ridiculous motives that make rock and roll its own functioning life force in the eyes of so many fans, especially hard rock ones. They don’t need your rules — or the laws of mortality, either. When it’s decided a band is forever, the death of a lead singer can’t even stop that machine any longer. And when a singer’s merely relieved of his post — well, who needs reality TV?