I’d had this great idea a long time ago to do an Alice In Chains retrospective on the band’s CDs and how they’ve progressed as songwriters and musicians. But I could never really kick myself in the ass to do it because I’d held out hope that Layne Staley could get his troubled past in order and get back with AIC to make something new. However, with the recent death of Layne Staley at 34, that is impossible now. At least I’ve given myself the kick to remember this great band.
My goal is to cover the band’s music and how it all flowed from CD to CD. This is JUST focusing on the music, not the events that happen around the music. If you want that, go hit up an Alice In Chains site and get that info. But, if you want to see a fan’s interpretation of their music and how they grew, then this is the place to be.
This is the major label debut, the CD that started it all. With tracks like “We Die Young,” “Sea Of Sorrow,” and the semi-classic “It Ain’t Like That Anymore,” this found a home in the CD collections of a lot of people before fame came to the band. However, Alice In Chains was destined for nothing more than any other band until, that is, radio and MTV picked up on an infectious and driving song, driven by chunky guitars, a chorus that had nicely performed vocals, and a ripper of a guitar solo. When “Man In The Box” hit the media, the people went nuts. The CD started selling like wildfire, and thus people were hooked on this sound… not really a new sound by any means, but one that had been refined by this band. The sound of Jerry Cantrell’s guitars, Layne’s vocals, Mike Starr’s bass being not just a rhythm instrument but also a melodic one, and even the pounding of Sean Kinney’s drums all come together to create a masterful debut CD, one to be remembered as a truly great CD.
An odd decision if ever there was one, this was an EP that was almost totally acoustic-guitar driven. From the soothing chords of “Brother” to the rougher chorus of the radio sing “Got Me Wrong,” the first two tracks really highlight the harmonies of Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell even better than the debut Facelift did. Quite honestly, this is probably my least favorite release because it’s just too left field for Alice In Chains. Plus, the other two songs take a lot of getting used to and they seem less focused than “Brother” and “Got me Wrong.” Still, a mediocre AIC release is a good CD.
The masterpiece. Considered the band’s best CD, and one of the best discs of all time. Certainly number one in my books. Right from the start, one could tell this was a totally different band than the one that did Facelift. Maybe not in members, but in spirit for sure. There were no ballad love songs on this CD. No songs that sounded like anything a band on the verge of grunge and end of glam would produce. No, this was purehard rock. It shows in songs like “Them Bones” and the classic “Angry Chair.” A slightly different side shows through in another classic and a smash hit to boot, “Rooster.” One recurring theme throughout the CD is undeniable: drug addiction. Specifically heroin, used by Layne a whole hell of a lot. He wrote songs about it because it’s what he knew. At the time, he didn’t think addiction was as bad as he later found out. So he wrote songs that seemed to glorify it. But, deep inside the songs, you could tell he was fighting the addiction. Slowly but surely. Two songs that later would go on to become perennial favorites of every AIC fan were the best signs of what was coming: “Down In A Hole” and “Would?” were the forecast of the coming fall.
“Down In A Hole” is perhaps the most somber song in the history of mankind. Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell use that ability to perfectly harmonize on the verses and a soaring note in the ends of the choruses, but it’s Cantrell’s perfect fingerstyle guitar playing that really sets the tone. Then, when he blasts the distortion and lets it ring through… it’s simply an experience I can’t even comprehend. Then, the close of the CD, quite possibly better known than “Man In The Box” for it’s brooding bass line, “Would?” was the song that really ends the CD on an unforgettable note. The bass kicks the song off and signals the coming tempest, then the guitar adds an eerie element to the song. The vocals are just the icing in the verses, then the full tilt choruses are the perfect kick to get things really going. The solo is well played, of course, and then one more part switch to take it home, then ending on the five discordant notes and the screamed line of “IF I WOULD COULD YOU?” just seals the deal. So closes the disc on a truly awesome and powerful album. The Dirt CD, a true rock classic if ever there was one.
Another EP from Alice In Chains, and the first recordings with new bassist Mike Inez, this one is more balanced. It keeps a free atmosphere and shows that acoustic side of Alice In Chains yet again. This time, the lead single was destined for greatness. Harmony all throughout the song, a rocking chorus, and an insanely catchy guitar riff keep “No Excuses” going, and it was an MTV smash hit, a radio smash hit, and made Alice In Chains do what was heretofore thought impossible: an EP debuted at #1 on the Billboard Music Charts. However, the songs apart from “No Excuses” are, for the most part, acoustic Alice In Chains material: depressing, moody, and full of loss. Even the instrumental “Whale And Wasp,” written solely by Jerry Cantrell, is a somber and grounded little song.
The second single from the CD, “I Stay Away,” was a very strange song from Alice In Chains. A combination of seemingly crazed lyrics and a strange but cool guitar part make this song one to remember. “Don’t Follow” is sometimes overlooked in the face of the singles and “Rotten Apple,” but it’s a great song. It starts with Jerry Cantrell and an acoustic guitar and just sails through the first half of the song, which seems to be Jerry telling his woman not to follow him where he’s going. Then, the song changes direction entirely. The bass kicks in, the guitar comes back, drums start up, and suddenly a nice harmonica comes in and sets the tone for Layne’s rougher voice to continue the story about how he wants to go home from where he is. We assume he’s an older version of the character Jerry portrayed in the first half. Whatever it is, it’s an enjoyable song, to be sure. However, they never did tour behind this CD, which makes the fact that it’s still the #1 selling EP of all time an incredible feat, to say the least.
A true return to form for Alice In Chains, this CD was. All rock, all the time. From start to finish, this CD just rocks. Not as dark as Dirt or colorful as Facelift, but a true rock CD nonetheless. The lead single was a bit different for the band, more of a chugging metal attack than the usual, but it served the band well, getting them a lot of radio airplay and a decent amount of MTV exposure. But it was the second single that really hit home with the people, because it somewhat conjured the spirit of “No Excuses.” “Heaven Beside You” featured Jerry Cantrell on lead vocals, the first AIC single to really focus on his voice much more than Layne’s. But it had a lot of acoustic guitar, a hard rocking section, a killer breakdown with some crazy solo work, and a nice, short-but-sweet feel to it. It was another in a growing string of MTV successes for the band. It was also the only first since “Angry Chair” where Layne’s eyes were seen, before then he always had shades on. What significance this had on anything is pretty pointless, but it seems worth mentioning, to some.
The third single, “Again,” inspired something of a national debate over the bridges. Was it two boops or three boops? This actually led MTV to dissect the song, second by second, and they still disagreed (the answer is three, by the way). Kind of an odd way to gain publicity, but if it works, then go with it. The song wasn’t half bad either. The rest of the CD was either straight ahead rock material, like “Head Creeps” and “Brush Away,” or slow, dirge-like songs, such as “Over Now.” The odd songs on this CD were easy to tell: “Frogs,” which was a weird song about… well… umm… umm… okay, no one really knows. It was just weird. And the “Nothin’ Song” which was truly about nothing, and is remembered by many as “That song about peanut butter,” thanks to a lyrics that goes “Oh the nothing son sticks to you mouth like peanut butter on the brain.” Again, a strange way to be remembered. Sadly, this was the last CD of original Alice In Chains material, and it was a good CD overall… but not a truly fitting end to the legacy. Thankfully, MTV saw fit to invite them to do…
This is one of the signs that your band is going to end soon. When MTV says “Can we do an Unplugged and record it for a CD release?” It happened to Nirvana, and it did pretty much happen to Alice In Chains. Who’s next, I ask? However, like Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged: Live From New York, the Alice In Chains MTV Unplugged CD and performance is the single best recording ever of the band. “From the opening chords of Jerry Cantrell’s guitar on “Nutshell” the final chord of the completely new and never recorded “Killer Is Me,” this CD shines. This was the last performance of the band ever, as such it’s only fitting that almost every radio song ever released was on here. “No Excuses,” “Angry Chair,” “Rooster,” “Heaven Beside You,” “Got Me Wrong,” and “Would?” all make showings here. In fact, the band’s mist beloved songs all make appearances, with the notable exception of anything from Facelift. But, what is here is superb.
“Brother” is a much better song on the acoustics than it is plugged in, and when Layne and Jerry do the middle part acapella, it’s soul-stirring. “No Excuses” is even more fun when done acoustic. A surprise in the form of the song “Sludge Factory” from the self-titled CD helps set the mood for the one single song that makes this CD, if nothing else does… an acoustic version of “Down In A Hole.” Simply a haunting reminder of what had been and a gloomy vision of what was to come, but so well done that it accomplishes it’s mission and make you feel the pain that Layne and Jerry felt while writing the song. “Angry Chair” is a nice addition, but I think I like it better plugged in. “Rooster” unplugged has a totally different and ethereal feel to it that just shines. “Got Me Wrong” was a great song plugged in, and it’s just as good unplugged. ”Heaven Beside You” was an excellent choice for the MTV Unplugged show, and it surely connected with the audience.
Now, “Would?” comes in and it too feels different. Vastly different. However, it still has that haunting feel to it. It’s less powerful because Layne’s voice had been devastated by rampant drug abuse, but he makes it work and still pulls out a great performance. Another odd choice from the Alice In Chains disc, “Frogs” rears its head on the CD. No one knows why, really. But, it is masterfully done, so we will give them credit for that much. Then, the closer of the show, sort of. “Over Now” from the self-titled disc (what’s with all the tracks from the latest disc, eh?) was a slow, brooding song. On the Unplugged disc, it’s a fun romp through the song, with a real twangy feel to it. It’s a great way to close the show, except they’re not done. Jerry speaks to the crowd and they decide to do a song that was more or less written during soundcheck, called “The Killer Is Me.” It’s a great song, and it doesn’t show that it’s that new because the band knows what they’re doing, and they show that they cans till play off of each other. The chemistry was still there, which is why it’s so sad that this was the last time they played live. But… what a memorial this disc is. Another must have CD, right here.
Um. This was an odd release. Essentially, this was to tide people over until the Alice In Chains box set could come out. It featured a few cools things: a live performance of “Rooster,” a demo of the early AIC classic, “We Die Young,” and the named track “Iron Gland.“ “Iron Gland” made it’s first appearance on the Dirt CD as an unnamed track between “Dirt” and “Hate To Feel” done only because Jerry wanted to play the weird guitar riff in the middle and he wouldn’t stop until it was recorded. Ever stranger still, the vocal parts are all overdub by legendary bassist/vocalist Tom Araya, better known for his role in thrash-metal band Slayer. Go figure, but it sounds cool as hell.
However, the real reason anyone picked this CD up was the inclusion of a brand new Alice In Chains song, called “Get Born Again.” It sounds like something from the Dirt but with a modern feel. AIC fans rejoiced at this song and thus our hope in the band was renewed! The box set promised more previously unreleased goodies and another new AIC song, so it was, of course, a must have. Nothing Safe was nothing spectacular, but it did its job and held the rabid AIC fan base over until the release of…
There’s no way to cover this thing. Three CDs of music, a fourth disc containing the enhanced CD from the re-released Jar Of Flies EP and the video for “Get Born Again” as well as a game based on AIC lore? How can you beat that? You can’t. If you are an AIC fan, buy this. Enjoy this. If you already have all the CDs (like me) and aren’t willing to shell out another $50 or whatever for it, then find the track list and get going on the stuff you don’t have. It’s worth the time or money.
Sadly, this ranks among the last AIC releases the world will ever see. This is, essentially, a career retrospective of the band live. Except… it doesn’t do it well. Let’s face facts: this was thrown together by Columbia Records to make money, and that’s it. It’s missing any sign of real life from the band, two of the tracks were already readily available (“Rooster” was on Nothing Safe and “Queen Of The Rodeo” was in the box set), and the quality is less than stellar. Overall, if you want AIC live, you’re better off finding the various import CDs floating around.
Technically, there is an Alice In Chains Greatest Hits package out, as well as reissues of Dirt and Jar Of Flies, but they’re nothing to really spend money on if you already have them. If you don’t, then by all means, grab them. Personally, I think Columbia Records has mismanaged the band and made them some sort of industry joke (“Hey hear about yet another greatest hits CD from Alice In Chains? Bwa ha ha!). It’s not funny, especially now that Layne Staley, possibly one of the greatest voices of all time, has passed away. It’s a tragedy, to be sure, but one can’t say it was unexpected. He knew it was coming, and he did try to kick the habit, but some just can’t get past it. Which makes his tale all the sadder. But… at least he left us with a healthy backlog of awesome music.
Alice In Chains will be remembered as a band from Seattle, if nothing else. One would hope they’ll be remembered for the songwriting team of Cantrell and Staley, the team that fueled this most legendary band. With 5 CDs of original music, two live CDs, and a box set, the band left it’s mark on the world. The music will live on through Jerry Cantrell, who has a solo career but still plays Alice In Chains songs at his shows. The music will live on through the countless bands that will be covering songs from them until the gates of hell open themselves up.
The music will live on through the fans and the amateur musicians who, like myself, will buy every Alice In Chains songbook and learn every song there is, and then learn them all over again just to be sure we have it. The singers who will emulate Layne’s voice, and fail because it’s impossible to do it justice. The bassists Mike Inez and Mike Starr who held the bottom down, usually forgotten in the greatness of Cantrell and Staley, and Sean Kinney, a drummer’s drummer. Never too much, never too little. He played the song, and that made him a good drummer and a perfect fit for the music. Separate, they were a group of Seattle musicians who were burned out on glam rock. Together as Alice In Chains, they shaped an entire generation of musicians. I’m glad to be able to count myself among those musicians. Alice In Chains and Layne Staley… gone, but never forgotten.