Alice In Chains

Buy Alice In Chains

Alice In Chains 1995 albumAlice in Chains took a whole bunch of personal turmoil and spun it into a fine album with their 1995 self-titled release. Informally referred to as “The Dog Record”, this third release saw the band building on their established atonal style as well as branching out with some accessible pop/rock tracks that helped the album sell over three million copies and reach double platinum status. This album is also notable as the group’s final studio release with original vocalist Layne Staley, as they would not complete another studio album before his death in 2002.

Following the massive success of their 1992 album, Dirt, Alice In Chains worked through a grueling tour schedule. However, bassist Mike Starr longed for home and was replaced by Mike Inez in advance of their acoustic-based, chart-topping album, Jar of Flies, released in early 1994. Soon after its release, Staley entered rehab for heroin addiction, which caused the group to cease touring and be replaced during the Woodstock ’94 festival.

Through the Spring and Summer of 1995 the group recorded Alice in Chains in Seattle with producer Toby Wright. Few of the songs had been written before the recording sessions began and, as Staley continued to struggle with addiction, guitarist Jerry Cantrell stepped up as chief composer as well as lead vocalist on several of the earliest tracks. Cantrell was facing his own turmoil after the break-up of his long time girlfriend, but this lent to helping him create some of the album’s signature tunes.


Balance by Van Halen
Released: November 7, 1995 (Columbia)
Produced by: Toby Wright & Alice in Chains
Recorded: Bad Animals Studio, Seattle, April–August 1995
Album Tracks Group Musicians
Grind
Brush Away
Sludge Factory
Heaven Beside You
Head Creeps
Again
Shame In You
God Am
So Close
Nothin’ Song
Frogs
Over Now
Layne Staley – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Jerry Cantrell – Guitars, Vocals
Mike Inez – Bass
Sean Kinney – Drums

 
Alice In Chains 1995 album

The album’s opening track as well as lead single, “Grind” is both slow and doomy, yet infectiously catchy. Cantrell made heavy use of wah effect on his guitars and Staley provided good harmonies to Cantrell’s lead vocals during the chorus breaks. “Brush Away” is less effective than the opener but does contain a nice effect of dual guitars. “Sludge Factory” follows with a slow drudge through initial sections and cool overdubs during the ‘B’ section. The song drifts into a long middle section which includes some distant spoken words and impressive drum patterns by Sean Kinney.

Cantrell’s “Heaven Beside You” is the first really great song on the album. It has a classic rock approach while maintaining an alternative edge, built on the acoustic guitar throughout with some later overdubbed electric guitar riffs and slight lead sections, all adding to the overall majesty of the song. The track was released as a single and reached the Top 5 of the Mainstream Rock chart in 1996.

 
“Head Creeps” has a nice vibe with animated rhythms by Inez and Kinney and a wild effect on Staley’s vocals all through its theatrical passages. Another successful mainstream rock track, “Again” employs the most direct heavy metal approach with its deadened hard guitar texture, rolling drums, thumping bass, and chanting vocals. “Shame In You” features a steady but deliberate drum pattern by Kinney before it breaks in with a fuller arrangement, ultimately finishing.

This album does descend to a nadir during the next three tracks. After a feedback drenched intro works its way into a freaky, slow groove. “God Am” becomes rather dry and listless for the duration. “So Close” continues much of this same vibe, albeit in a more succinct fashion, while on “Nothin’ Song” the vocals follow guitar through the verses while the choruses change direction in tone and tempo.

Alice In Chains

Wrapping things up are a couple of stronger tracks. The eight minute acoustic epic “Frogs” is slow, dark, and theatrical with Inez’s slicing bass and potent musical interlude between providing the early highlights. Later, a long outro section is quite entertaining, even though it remains very slow and steady with no deviation. The closer “Over Now” may be the most pop-oriented track on the album, with its pleasant guitar textures complementing the simple but effective vocal melodies and lyrics. The slight bridge and outro section bring a little more sonic candy to this song which features Cantrell on lead vocals.

Tracks from Alice In Chains received Grammy nominations in 1996 and 1997 and the album was up for several other industry awards. Debuting at number one, the album stayed on the Billboard 200 chart for nearly a year. While no tour followed the album release, the group did perform a single show in April 1996, which was recorded for a live MTV Unplugged album later that year.

~

1995 page images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1995 albums.

 

Facelift by Alice In Chains

Buy Facelift

Facelift by Alice In ChainsAlice In Chains released an impressive debut album in 1990 with Facelift. Some have given this record the distinction of being the first “grunge” record to be certified platinum, although we may stipulate that this album is not strictly “grunge”. The group has a strong heavy metal pedigree, which shines through the otherwise methodical and moody tunes. In all, Facelift is full of tracks which are heavy, melodic and dark and it (unintentionally) became the wellspring for musical trends to come.

The group originated when vocalist (and then drummer) Layne Staley met guitarist Jerry Cantrell at a Seattle rehearsal studio in the mid eighties. The two struggling musicians instantly bonded and worked on several musical projects together before Alice In Chains fully formed. In 1988, the group recorded a demo which eventually made its way to Columbia Records‘ A&R department and representative Nick Terzo, who set up an appointment with label president Don Ienner. Based on The Treehouse Tapes, Ienner signed Alice in Chains to that label in 1989.

After the release and success of an EP earlier in 1990, the label fast tracked the production of the debut album with producer Dave Jerden. Mainly recorded at London Bridge Studio, Cantrell felt that the album’s moody aura was a direct result of the feel of Seattle. Meanwhile, drummer Sean Kinney claims he recorded the album with a broken hand because he didn’t want to miss the group’s “first big break.”


Facelift by Alice In Chains
Released: August 21, 1990 (Columbia)
Produced by: Dave Jerden
Recorded: London Bridge Studio, Seattle & Capitol Recording Studio, Hollywood, December 1989-April 1990
Track Listing Group Musicians
We Die Young
Man In the Box
Sea of Sorrow
Bleed the Freak
I Can’t Remember
Love, Hate, Love
It Ain’t Like That
Sunshine
Put You Down
Confusion
I Know Somethin (‘Bout You)
Real Thing
Layne Staley – Lead Vocals
Jerry Cantrell – Guitars, Vocals
Mike Starr – Bass, Vocals
Sean Kinney – Drums, Percussion, Piano

The opening track “We Die Young” comes in as a standard hard rock song with a just a bit of vocal and lyrical edge. Cantrell wrote the song when he observed on a bus some “9 or 10 year-olds with beepers to deal drugs”. This track, which originated on the group’s earlier studio EP, clocks in at just two and a half minutes and ends just as aprubtly as it begins.

The true gem of Facelift comes early on with “Man In the Box”. The track employs simple but masterful sonic expressions and a steady drive which could uniformly cut through Staley’s lead vocals. Cantrell uses a talk box effect with bassist Mike Starr holding down the bottom end of the grinding riff. Released as a single in 1991, this became the signature song of the band’s early career and was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance in 1992.

 
Kinney’s choppy piano complements Cantrell’s slide guitar notes during the deceptive beginning of the beat and rhythm driven “Sea of Sorrow”. The song peaked at number 27 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks and was a moderate radio hit. “Bleed the Freak” is the first somewhat weak track on the album, with the vocals a bit whiny, while “I Can’t Remember” extends the preceding track but with a darker, more foreboding feel. The body of this latter song uses timing for maximum effect, even if the song never really accelerates from its slow and deliberate pace.

The heart of the album contains some of the more diverse tracks. The extremely slow “Love, Hate, Love” features some competing riffs that somehow end at the same place during the sparse but effective verses, while the choruses are even more impressive due to Staley’s soaring vocal melody as he wails through lyrics of standard love fair. Cantrell offers some Wah-Wah effects on “It Ain’t Like That”, which has strong elements of traditional eighties heavy metal, but with the dark overtones that tilt it towards grunge. A bright chorus of guitars make the verse section of “Sunshine” unlike anything else on the album, although this track’s chorus is a little more straight-forward hard rock, with Cantrell singing some smooth backing vocals behind Staley’s raspy throat. “Put You Down” is good-time hard rock musically, in a style reminiscent of our recent review of Damn Yankees.

The final three tracks are all excellent and work to close the album very strongly. The slow, moody, stream-of-consciousness that starts off “Confusion” is complemented by an odd chord progression that adds to the overall effect. Co-written by Starr, who adds enough low-end bass punch, this song builds nicely in intensity through the chorus and is one of the few tracks to have a proper lead guitar and it is bluesy and effective for this fine song. “I Know Somethin (Bout You)” has a very funky intro by Cantrell and Starr. Masterfully odd timings throughout make this one of the more entertaining tracks along with the complex vocal patterns during the chorus hooks, which help build the song to a climax before its abrupt ending. “Real Thing” is a bit of  traditional blues mixed with straight-forward heavy rock. Like tracks earlier on the album, the sonic textures carry the day on this closer which works to elevate the album to the classic level.

Facelift barely missed the Top 40 on the album charts and was far from an instant success, selling less than 40,000 copies in its first six months. But there is still little doubt that, with this album, Alice In Chains was a blazing a trail for the deluge of change that was about to come to the music scene.

~

1990 Page ad

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of 1990 albums.

Jar of Flies by Alice In Chains

Buy Jar of Flies

Jar of Flies by Alice In ChainsOne of the biggest debates about Jar of Flies by Alice In Chains is how exactly to refer to it. Wikipedia refers to it as “the first EP in music history to debut at number one on the Billboard 200 Chart”. However, that same site’s definition of an EP sets the maximum time at 25 minutes, so at 30:49 Jar of Flies is a proper LP album. Whatever may ultimately be the case, this short 1994 collection of songs is edgy, diverse, and entertaining and captures the short-lived group in their prime and exploring new avenues of rock music adventure. The result is a collection which is highly reflective lyrically while moody and methodical musically.

Following the success of their 1992 album Dirt, Alice in Chains went on an extensive world tour with new bassist Mike Inez, who replaced Mike Starr after he left the group. Upon returning to Seattle in September 1993, the band went to London Bridge Studio and spent an entire week writing and recording. While this was originally done purely for cathartic reasons and the group never originally intended this material for public release, the record label insisted and Jar of Flies debuted at number one on the American album charts.

The material on the album employs rich musical scope and a healthy variation of instrumentation. While most of the songs were built on Jerry Cantrell‘s acoustic guitar and Layne Staley‘s lyrics, the group tactfully used overdubs and session musicians to enrich the sonic quality of this record.


Jar of Flies by Alice In Chains
Released: January 25, 1994 (Columbia)
Produced by: Alice In Chains
Recorded: London Bridge, Seattle & Scream, Studio City, CA, September 1993
Track Listing Group Musicians
Rotten Apple
Nutshell
I Stay Away
No Excuses
Whale and Wasp
Don’t Follow
Swing on This
Layne Staley – Lead Vocals
Jerry Cantrell – Guitars, Vocals
Mike Inez – Bass
Sean Kinney – Drums, Percussion

Jar of Flies by Alice In Chains

 

The opener “Rotten Apple” starts with the slow bass riff by newbie Inez coupled by the furious talk-box riffing by Cantrell. The song feels its way around for a while before fully kicking in with drums and vocals, but it then, unfortunately, becomes repetitive and mundane through the remainder of its seven minute duration. A gently strummed bright acoustic starts “Nutshell” which, while still dark and foreboding, is overall more melodic than the opener. Cantrell’s crunchy outro lead guitar is the real reward in this sad piece of music.

Jar of Flies really starts to pick up with “I Stay Away” and remains top notch through the rest of the album. Starting light and melodic, the song eventually builds in intensity with swarming guitars during the pre-choruses and a soaring ethereal surge during the hooks. The song reached number ten on the Mainstream Rock charts and was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance . Starting with an interesting rock drum beat by Sean Kinney, “No Excuses” contains harmonized vocals throughout and steady, hypnotizing guitar/bass riff. The song was the most popular radio hit from the album as its easygoing pace and catchy chorus struck a chord with listeners.

A rare instrumental in the group’s collection, “Whale & Wasp” starts with a long, reverb-drenched droning electric guitar note by note above a gently picked acoustic piece. Later on, a nicely harmonized lead keeps the moody feeling going as does the subtle string quartet which accompanies the band during this piece. “Don’t Follow” leans more towards a traditional folk acoustic piece, very laid back and deliberate. The second half of song picks it up a bit with slight rhythm by Inez and Kinney and a frantic harmonica by guest David Atkinson. There’s no deception in the title of the album’s closer, as “Swing on This” is built on a jazz swing, provided mainly by Inez’s bass and nicely complimented by Kinney’s drums and Cantrell’s push chords. The song’s refrain is more alt-rock-oriented, almost in an awkward way, building up tension until the swing returns and Kinney’s drums carry through the final stages of the song and album.

Jar of Flies has been certified triple-platinum and landed at or near the top of the charts in countries across the globe. However, this accomplishment was bittersweet. After the album’s release, Staley entered rehab for heroin addiction and the band had to eventually cancel their scheduled tour dates to support the album.

~

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of 1994 albums.


1994 Images

 

Dirt by Alice In Chains

Buy Dirt

Dirt by Alice In ChainsThe band which practically invented the genre of dark alternative metal, Alice In Chains bridged the gap between the “traditional” heavy metal and the new, alternative inspired “fusion” metals which began to proliferate in the 1990s. With their second album, Dirt the band really came of age. The album was very well received by music critics and sold well commercially, having been certified platinum four times over. Like their 1990 debut album Facelift, this album was produced by Dave Jerden, with songs primarily written on the road prior to entering the studio. Guitarist Jerry Cantrell has stated that Dirt was the band’s best work.

There is no doubt that the material on this album has a very dark feel throughout. Themes such as depression, war, death, nihilism, and especially drug abuse are explored thoroughly in the morbid lyrics and suitably complemented by the slow, methodical, bleak and doomy music and melody. Lead singer Layne Staley was in the middle of his constant struggle with substance abuse (which he would ultimately lose at the age of 34) and he had recently quit a stunt in rehab. The other band members were also struggling with various chemical dependency and depression ailments and were not shy about laying their soul bare on this album. As Cantrell recently stated;

I was going through a tough time, everyone was, but that’s what made the album stronger and more intense, I look back on that period of time as the longest four years of sex, drugs and alcohol we all went through…”

The band’s roots date back to 1987 in Seattle when Staley first met Cantrell in 1987. In between the band’s debut in 1990 and Dirt in 1992, Seattle suddenly became an international “scene” with the phenomenal success of bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. As a result, Alice In Chains were suddenly marketed as an “alternative” band, instead of their traditional heavy metal billing in order to help build anticipation for the new album. This strategy worked because the band was hard enough for metal fans, yet dark and punk-influenced enough to join the ranks of the grunge bands.

 


Dirt by Alice In Chains
Released: September 29, 1992 (Columbia)
Produced by: Dave Jerden & Alice in Chains
Recorded: Various Locations, March-May 1992
Track Listing Band Musicians
Them Bones
Dam That River
Rain When I Die
Down In a Hole
Sickman
Rooster
Junkhead
Dirt
God Smack
Intro (Dream Sequence)/Iron Gland
Hate To Feel
Angry Chair
Would?
Layne Staley – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Jerry Cantrell – Guitars, Vocals
Mike Starr – Bass
Sean Kinney– Drums
 
Dirt by Alice In Chains

 

Dirt balances heavy rock sounds with textured acoustic numbers and the album spawned five singles; “Them Bones”, “Down in a Hole”, “Rooster”, “Angry Chair”, and “Would?”, the album’s closer which was actually the lead single. Starting with an excellent bass by Mike Starr (who left the band after the album’s release) “Would?” works its way through fine verses and choruses before it ends abruptly following a climatic bridge. The song was written in memory of Andrew Wood, the lead singer of Seattle band Mother Love Bone who died of a heroin overdose in 1990.

On the opposite end of the album, it begins with “Them Bones”, in an instant, explosive beginning. The song builds tension through the verse with its layered guitars of differing sonic distances and odd 7/8 beat signature. Cantrell bluntly said of the song;

I was just thinking about mortality, that one of these days we’ll end up a pile of bones…

“Down in a Hole” contains some eighties-style guitars (unique on the album) and maintains a very slow drum beat by Sean Kinney, leaving all of the movement to the guitars and bass. Cantrell was at first hesitant to present the song to the band, feeling that it may be too “soft”, but surprisingly got a positive response and they recorded it. “Angry Chair”, written by Staley, is more riff and accent oriented.

“Rooster” is the most purely alternative, and perhaps the strongest overall song on the album. It is slow and moody with deeply chorus-saturated, strummed guitars which later give way to piercing, distorted, heavy guitars. Lyrically, the song paints a masterful picture of Cantrell’s father and his Vietnam experience. Jerry Cantrell Sr. went by the nickname “Rooster” since childhood, which coincidentally was also a common reference to men carrying the M60 machine gun due to the the muzzle flash from which makes an outline or pattern reminiscent of a rooster’s tail. The constant alternating between the dreamy verses, and surging, explosive choruses masterfully captures the fits and starts of combat, especially the first person experience in Vietnam.

 

“Dam That River” is steady and riff driven, with harmonized vocals during the verses and Staley alone during “choruses”. It contains a decent lead after second verse before reaching an abrupt ending. “Rain When I Die” has a bass beginning, odd rhythm, doomy guitars during long intro before breaks into a repetitive guitar riff but with some of the best sounding guitars on the album (with the exception for maybe “Rooster”). “Sickman” features a mechanical drum beat and falls into that grove initially before deprecating into a slow, waltz-like break, It repeats this pattern and expands on the slow part during the bridge with some great Brian May-like guitars. It is really like two songs in one constantly alternating like the Beatles’ “I Want You/She’s So Heavy”

Dirt is commonly seen by fans as Alice in Chains’ album dedicated to the experience of heroin use. Honestly, the whole junky thing does get old when beaten to death and it feels at times like going into the darkness is just a game to the composers. From the listener’s point-of-view it may get to the point of like watching a stale old movie plot, reused over again. This is especially true during a sequence of songs later in the album starting with the Black Sabbath-esque “Junkhead”, followed by the suicidal “Dirt”, and “God Smack”, which does redeem itself partially by actually celebrating the joys of heroin abuse and stepping away from the doom-and-gloom for one song. “Hate to Feel” almost sounds like it belongs in some kind of rock opera, and briefly rips off “Dazed and Confused” during middle. It is this bit of repetitiveness that holds the album back a step from full-fledged classic status.

All that being said, the album was a critical success and is often considered to be one of the best rock records of the 1990s. Although the band’s status and artistic output continued through the better part of the decade, the underlining issues never really went away. The band ceased touring soon after the release of Dirt, Staley later also disappeared from recording and the group never did quite fulfill their potential.

~

1992 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of 1992 albums.