It was all so simple before Led Zeppelin. Despite some overlap (Deep Purple), it was pretty easy to tell which hard-rock bands were seeking to beat audiences into submission and which ones were expecting credit for melody, dynamics and at least a pretense of innovation. Then came Page, Plant, Bonham and Jones to trample the line away with abusive drumming, super riffology and screaming id-iocy crossed with rustic acoustics, intricately ambitious arrangements and lyrics sprung from sources other than horror movies and superhero comics.
Flash forward to the American Northwest, circa 1989. The region’s burgeoning hard-rock scene comes in three varieties: ex-punks who worship Led Zeppelin, non-punks who worship Led Zeppelin and permanent punks who just don’t give a fuck. While the third category produced the erratic tradition-busting of Mudhoney and Nirvana, the first two yielded Tad, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam, retroids whose essential differences from vintage metal have less to do with the sound of music than their distinctive senses of self and purpose. Soundgarden wants to be the serious modern equal to its idol, gods of ’90s thunder, while Pearl Jam strives to nullify the issue with compelling faith in its own individuality. That leaves Alice in Chains, predestined by its torpid unoriginality to contentedly embody dumb-rock as if the ’70s were still in full swing. Mediocre to the core and with at least one member regrettably quick to make the same heroin mistake as misguided Charlie Parker acolytes seeking unattainable inspiration via substance abuse, the quartet owes its dramatic tug to the personal messes chronicled on its records. If it wasn’t for bad shit, Alice in Chains wouldn’t have no shit (to sing about) at all.
Trotting out one of the hoariest clichés in the punkmetal phrase book and setting the agenda for much of what follows, guitarist/songwriter Jerry Cantrell has singer Layne Staley open the thuggish bore that is Facelift by declaring “We Die Young.” Attempting poetry-as-a-second-language, the songs rock hard in the service of such lunkheaded lines (some attributable to the vocalist) as “Walls of thought, strong and high/As my castle crumbles with time” and “Here I sit writing on the paper/Trying to make the words you can’t ignore.” Such inanity would be excusable if the music supplied the missing imagination or wit, but Facelift is dismayingly consistent in that regard.
The five new songs on Sap amplify the band’s Led Zep exertions with ruminative rusticity (“Brother,” the all- acoustic “Right Turn”), moody bluesiness (“Got Me Wrong”) and not-the-real-thing-but-big-fans guest appearance by Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and the dreadful Ann Wilson of Heart. (Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, who doesn’t emit Plant-like noises in public, also sings along.) Inarticulating his programmatic bleak vision in “Am I Inside,” Staley sticks the only memorable hook here into “Black is all I feel/So this is how it feels to be free.” The unlisted fifth track is a pastiche of dance-hall piano, silly samples, industrial pounding and sound effects that teases a surprising lighter side from a generally dismal band.
Taking structural cues from Metallica and Pearl Jam (and getting an assist from Slayer’s Tom Araya), Alice in Chains and producer Dave Jerden fry up a sizzling metal platter with a thunderous bottom (credit bassist Mike Starr and drummer Sean Kinney) on Dirt; lockstep riffs move songs along like machinery performing intricate and repetitive assembly line maneuvers. The songs aren’t musically involving as such, but the intensity and density of their performances gives them an effectively menacing aura. What’s more memorable about Dirt, however, is its unguarded (if obliquely cast) Staley diaries of drug addiction. (As explicit as it gets: “What’s my drug of choice?/Well, what have you got?/I don’t go broke and I do it a lot.”) Appalling in their death obsessions and relentless wretchedness, songs like “God Smack,” “Hate to Feel” and “Junkhead” wallow miserably without any promise of long-term redemption. “Ah, what’s the difference I’ll die/In this sick world of mine,” Staley sings in “Sickman,” and echoes that thought in nearly every song. All of which leads to unanswerable questions of intent: gutsy self- examination, wolf-crying sensationalism or queasy self- exploitation? Tragedy is ideal source material for art, but it’s highly unsettling to hear a band in the middle of a crisis fill an album with reports on how bad it feels. And no matter how grim the strung-out life is pictured to be, living through it in public without evidence of doing anything to escape an avowedly suicidal existence sends a dangerously seductive message of acquiescence.
Written and recorded in a week with new bassist Mike Inez, the self-produced, mostly unplugged Jar of Flies repeats the loud LP/quiet EP pattern established by the juxtaposition of Facelift and Sap, adding seven new songs, strings and an intriguing semi- electric stylistic plateau (erected on mood rings borrowed from R.E.M., America, the Allman Brothers Band and Mountain’s “Nantucket Sleighride”) to the repertoire. Redressing Dirt‘s moral failing in a quizzical blend of bluntness and obfuscation, Cantrell clarifies the band’s view of drug addiction with “Don’t Follow.” Although it vividly enumerates the cost (“Forgot my woman, lost my friends…sleep in sweat…my face it’s growin’ old…scared to death…”), the best advice the song can offer is “Say goodbye, don’t follow/Misery is so hollow.” That’s not much to go on. The affecting “Rotten Apple,” “Nutshell” and two others co-written by Inez reach previously unexplored melodic terrain and indicate a more tuneful future for the band’s music. That, and the fact that Staley’s steely voice actually suits the restrained ambience of these songs, makes the group’s arena metal seem even more misguided.
The group evidently realized that, at least enough to fiddle the formula and gimmickify its next album. Inez calmly leads the music out of the metal woods to a poppier clearing on nearly half the tracks (three others he didn’t write head that way as well, but his influence is manifestly substantial). Alice in Chains starts with a typical roar (“Grind”) but immediately downshifts into the charged atmospherics and controlled feedback symphony of “Brush Away” and continues switching between bellowing force and various restrained alternatives. The blaring songs send Staley’s voice through distortion processors to corny effect, but the singer rises (lowers?) to the challenge of such engagingly low-key tracks as “Frogs,” “Shame in You” and “Heaven Beside You.” His ability to come down off his rock chariot and show reserve and subtlety (not to mention attractive harmonies) is impressive, but not as encouraging as the new-found will to survive and romantic dedication of the lyrics. However dubious the impulse, Staley seems genuinely concerned (in “Sludge Factory”) that “the body of one soul I adore wants to die…I say stay long enough to repay all those who caused strife.” The craggy prayer of “God Am” includes an encouraging request: “All of this death you’re sending/Best throw some free heart mending.” Cantrell reflects the same recovery mindset: “You’d be well advised not to plan my funeral before the body dies,” he warns in “Grind,” adding (in the CSN-ish “Over Now”) “Guess it’s over now/I seem alive somehow.” What should have been the band’s last word on addiction, Alice in Chains (which bears remarkable similarity in thinking to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ One Hot Minute, released a month or two earlier in the fall of ’95) cleared away old business and could have served as a transition to a second phase of the band’s career had Staley’s drug problems not put the kibosh on that.
The band managed just a handful of live appearances in support of Alice in Chains, but one of them was an episode of MTV’s Unplugged. On disc, Unplugged finds the band in good form, thanks in part to the presence of a second guitarist (Scott Olson) to flesh out their sound. Despite his dramatically withered appearance in the artwork, Staley’s voice is strong, and the band is in a refreshingly jovial mood for faithful versions of the most acoustic-friendly material from their previous four releases. Unplugged offers one new song, the competent brooder “Killer Is Me.” Less than three months later, Alice in Chains would play its final show.
With Staley completely withdrawn from public life and Cantrell off to a solo career, Columbia went to town, releasing a boxed set (Music Bank), a one-disc condensation of it (Nothing Safe), a live album and a greatest hits over a two-year span beginning in mid-1999. The ten-track Greatest Hits, a mere 44 minutes of music, is insufficient for all but the most casual of listeners. Nothing Safe does a far better job of representing the band on a single disc and is the only Alice in Chains release to contain the original version of the Dirt-era single “What the Hell Have I” from the Last Action Hero soundtrack album. Unfortunately, it not only fails as a best-of by replacing the studio versions of three songs with a demo and two live tracks (one from Unplugged), it’s also not really the best of the box, containing only one of its previously unreleased tracks, the single “Get Born Again.” To further confuse matters, none of the three “alternate versions” is on the box set, nor is the original “What the Hell Have I.”
The inanity continued. One of the four discs of Music Bank is a CD-ROM with a typically awful game and assorted multi-media content. Had the fourth disc been used for music, the box could have presented the band’s entire recorded output (only 14 songs, including the bonus track on Sap, are not represented in some form here). Conversely, the sum total of the unreleased material on Music Bank would have fit on a single disc odds and sods collection: two new songs (including “Get Born Again”), three remixes, four demos for Facelift and Dirt (none of which differ significantly from the album versions) and seven previously unreleased songs from the band’s past. The most illuminating are pre- Facelift demos that reveal the band’s roots in glam metal. Despite Staley’s distinctive singing, these could be demos for the second Skid Row album. Music Bank does summarize Alice’s brief career, mainly because it includes the bulk of it. It is also smartly packaged, with an informative booklet that includes track-by-track comments from Cantrell.
Live collects 14 performances, including the two non-Unplugged live tracks from Nothing Safe and Music Bank. The bulk of the disc comes from a 1993 gig and the band’s two final shows in July 1996. Minus the second guitarist and controlled environment they enjoyed on Unplugged, Alice in Chains is a sloppy and uninspiring live act here. The version of “Dirt” is parenthetically (and correctly) subtitled “Drunk and Disorderly Version,” and points to the disc’s most revealing aspect. Staley’s voice, captivating in 1993 (especially on menacing renditions of “Junkhead” and the epic “Love, Hate, Love”), is drained of life three years later. The sound of the singer struggling against the limitations of a once-powerful instrument is a more compelling argument against drug use than any of the band’s lyrics, though hardly as convincing as the inevitable overdose that killed Staley in a Seattle hovel in April 2002.
Recorded during a timeout between Jar of Flies and Alice in Chains, Mad Season’s Above unites Staley, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, drummer Barrett Martin of Screaming Trees and bassist John Baker Saunders in a boring tribute to arena rock and blues-rock of the late ’70s. (Anyone looking for a sandwich of P-Jam and Chains is better recommended to a shuffle-play CD changer.) The record’s actual significance is in Staley’s confessional lyrics, which serve as something of a bridge between the desolation of Dirt and the cleanliness of Alice in Chains. “Long Gone Day” finds him drowning in tears, clutching a silver spoon and an open flame but acknowledging that he’s lost his way; “I Don’t Know Anything” goes even further in accepting the wrongness of his situation. Finally, the admission (in “River of Deceit”) that “My pain is self-chosen” effectively negates the pathos of everything else he has to say in song, which makes it the closest he’s ever come to real art.