I don’t know why, perhaps it’s the bleak times we find ourselves in, but I have been really drawn to Alice In Chains’ music lately. Since these aren’t the sunniest of times, I’m perhaps making a mental-health tactical error listening to so much Alice In Chains but I’m doing it anyway. Don’t get me wrong I’ve always liked Alice In Chains, this isn’t a sudden epiphany or anything. I think it was when I assembled my smack-inspired playlist B&V Playlist: Chasing the Dragon – Songs About Heroin that I reconnected with AIC. I picked a number of songs from their landmark album Dirt for that playlist and those songs sounded so great to me (it had been a while), I couldn’t help plunging back into the Layne Staley-era catalog. And by catalog I mean the three proper albums and the two EPs they released before he sadly passed. (I’m skipping We Die Young as I consider it an extended single…)
Of course Alice In Chains road into our consciousness on that early 90s Grunge wave. At the time, I thought Grunge would be like punk rock in the late 70s. Punk emerged to challenge the rock establishment who’d gotten fat and happy and yes, overblown. Punk stripped rock and roll back down to its primal roots. For the most part, the established bands merely absorbed the energy of punk and got back to a more lean and rocking sound (How The Biggest Bands In the World Reacted Musically to Punk Rock in the 70s). I figured Grunge would just be the next generational kick in the ass. Unfortunately, Grunge killed everything that came before it. On our first date, the Rock Chick commented on Cobain killing all the 80s bands she dug, hence her name the Rock Chick. It’s how I knew we’d be together. When Grunge petered out, there was no one left standing which is why we’re subjected to a bunch of synth-based pop stars who masquerade as rock and roll now. I never Panic and I’m never At The Disco.
I remember watching VH1 (not to date myself as old), and they did a retrospective on Grunge’s impact on the 80s stars. They had Mike Reno, the lead singer of Loverboy (gads) and he was lamenting that Kurt Cobain killed his career. I think Loverboy was already headed down the tubes, Mike. Reno is swollen and fat on the show. He looks like someone who swallowed Mike Reno vs the actual Mike Reno. My favorite 80s star interviewed on that show was Lita Ford. She was sitting on the patio of her home on the beach – clearly she got out of the 80s having done pretty well for herself – wrapped in a blanket and she said something like, “Yeah Kurt Cobain killed all the 80s bands… what a drag.” What a drag indeed. On this VH1 show, they had someone from a hair band, I don’t recall which one, who said he’d asked the record company about ditching the big hair and spandex, maybe wearing jeans on stage and the record company told him it was “off brand.” He said the next time he was in his record company’s office, there was a giant poster of Alice In Chains behind the receptionist and they didn’t have big hair and were wearing jeans. I guess we should always act on our instincts…
I always considered AIC to be one of the four “big” or “most important” Grunge bands… Perhaps through the lens of Lita Ford or Mike Reno we might describe them as the Four Horsemen of the 90s Rock Apocalypse: Alice In Chains, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. I always thought of Alice In Chains as being distinctly Grunge. The other three bands have, to my ears, influences that they wear on their sleeves – PJ (classic rock), Nirvana (punk), and Soundgarden (soaring heavy metal). However, having gone back and listened to all three of the Layne LPs, you can hear kind of a death metal, atonal thing happening in the music. I love Jerry Cantrell’s heavy slabs of guitar and Sean Kinney’s drumming. That gloomy, moody sound certainly helps underpin the lyrics – depression, despair, isolation and addiction are common themes for AIC.
Alice In Chains were a big band – Dirt was 3x platinum and Alice In Chains was 2x platinum – but I always felt like they sort of underachieved a bit. The problem they had was, well, Layne Staley’s heroin addiction. They had to cancel out of much of the tour for Dirt. His addiction was so bad they didn’t even try to tour after Alice In Chains. I always wondered if the cover art on that latter album, a three-legged dog, was a swipe at Staley by his three other band members… kind of a “where are you?” message. They started off with a strong debut, Facelift. “Man In A Box” from that LP is one of the best songs ever. “Sea of Sorrow” and “Bleed the Freak” are amongst my favorites from AIC. Dirt was (with one exception) their critical and their commercial peak. The final Staley LP, the eponymously titled one aka “Tripod,” felt like a bit of a missed opportunity. Staley had deteriorated too far by that point. I still like that album but songs like “Frogs” and “Sludge Factory” just sort of miss the mark for me.
Eventually, the addiction claimed Layne Staley’s life. His story is perhaps the saddest I can think of. He’d locked himself in his Seattle condo and become utterly reclusive. His weight dropped down to a reported 86 lbs. He was emaciated and pale. His friends, bandmates and family continued to reach out to him and he wouldn’t respond. In April of 2002 he overdosed on a “speedball” a combination of heroin and cocaine. His body wasn’t discovered for two weeks. It was an awful end…
Beyond all of that, and beyond the three Layne Staley-era LPs, Alice In Chains did something interesting in those early days. Between each proper LP, they released an EP. For those not familiar with that vernacular, LP means “long player” aka, a full album length record. EP stands for “extended player” which means it’s longer than a single, with perhaps 3,4 or a few more songs, but not quite an album length disc. AIC’s two EPs from that era were different from the their main body in work as they were more acoustic based. There’s still some electric guitar to be found there but it’s more of an accent. There is an increased focus on Layne Staley and guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Jerry Cantrell’s harmonies. To me, the EPs they put out are their most brilliant work. Everyone should seek both of these out if you haven’t already. If you are familiar with these records, and most people are, they are absolutely worth rediscovering.
Of the two EPs, I think Sap was the most surprising one. No one expected, after Facelift, to hear AIC go acoustic. There are 5 songs on the EP, but the last one is an untitled joke of a song so I really don’t consider that in the mix here. “Got Me Wrong” is probably the best known track and it’s great, but all three other tracks are phenomenal. The opener, “Brother” which they played on their exceptional Unplugged album (B&V’s Favorite MTV “Unplugged” LPs) sends the message that this EP is going to be something completely different from them. This music is so much more nuanced and layered than anything on the debut. Although, admittedly “Got You Wrong” could have been on Facelift or Dirt and I wouldn’t have been surprised. “I Am Inside” is haunting brilliance. I had completely forgotten that “Right Turn” has a Chris Cornell & Mark Arm cameo… it’s a great song that no one ever talks about. Everybody talks about the next EP… but this one is sublime.
Jar of Flies (1994)
This was the EP that brought me into the Alice In Chains fold. Back in the early/mid 90s I had this friend, Walt (name changed to protect the guilty) who when we were partying, invariably around four in the morning would say, “Hey, put on Jar of Flies.” His father was a principal where I went to high school and once threatened to pull out my rib cage if I didn’t stop terrorizing my Geometry teacher… the guy was an awful instructor and wasn’t engaging me mentally, but I digress. I stopped acting up, I’ll tell you that. Anyway, Jar of Flies is simply brilliant. The moody, atmospheric “Rotten Apple” opens the EP and the Cantrell/Staley harmonizing is hypnotizing. There’s not a bad moment on this thing. I think they released every song as a single – “Nutshell,” “I Stay Away,” “No Excuses” and “Don’t Follow” are all great tracks that follow the same template. I even like the instrumental, “Whale & Wasp.” Staley was fully engaged here and wrote the lyrics for four of the 6 tracks (I’m not counting the instrumental track here, obviously). To me this disc represents the height of Layne Staley’s abilities. While this EP is hugely popular and well-known, in these dark times it just felt right to highlight it as a “must-hear.” Its certainly earned a rediscovery.
Layne Staley was a great singer and a true talent. Alas, heroin snatched another artist. Alice In Chains with him in front were like a comet… they burned bright and broad only to snuff itself out way too soon. Alice In Chains has gone on since then with a new singer, William Duvall, who I saw open for the Stones. They’re still a solid band and a few tracks have caught my attention, “Your Decision” springs to mind, but they haven’t fully captured my ear the way the classic line up did. If you’ve got the emotional stability in these dark times, I urge you all to put these two brilliant, acoustic EPs on and turn them up loud.
With things “reopening” please be smart and keep yourself protected. Me, I’m going to continue my “Boo Radley” from ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ impersonation and stay hidden in the attic until things clear up.