For so long they were a band teetering on the brink of collapse, but somehow have emerged through tragedy to a new era, so let’s look back at the albums that Alice In Chains have released so far…
That Facelift was beaten out to a Grammy for best Hard Rock Performance by Van Halen’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge reflects the times it was released in, as well as what an important album it was. That half of the band who recorded it didn’t make it to 45 reflects the darkness behind the dark music contained within, and makes We Die Young ever more of a tragic rock anthem. Released a year after Nirvana’s Bleach and Soundgarden’s Louder Than Love, it did arguably more than either of those to pave the way for grunge to take over the rock music world over the next couple of years, and tracks like Man In The Box, Bleed The Freak, Sea Of Sorrow and the aforementioned We Die Young are all bona fide classics. It’s not quite all at that level, but it’s an album ahead of its time and miles better than that Van Halen record.
Having established themselves in the heavy metal community with Facelift and tours with some of the biggest metal groups around, and with grunge taking off after the release of Nevermind, what did Alice In Chains do? They released an acoustic EP. It’s the kind of planning that could have been career suicide, but Sap merely proved that there was so much more to the band than doom-laden riffage. Both Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell had vocals perfectly suited to beautiful quieter tracks like Brother, with Ann Wilson from Heart joining in. Continuing the Seattle All-Star approach, Mark Arm and Chris Cornell feature on Right Turn, which was credited to ‘Alice Mudgarden’. A stunning little taster of what Alice In Chains really had to offer and not even a bit of career suicide.
Following on from the success of Sap, Alice In Chains hit grunge paydirt with, well, Dirt. One of the best albums of its era, it’s also one of the darkest, borne out of the drink, drugs and depression problems that were variously affecting all of the band members. Listening to the stark lyrics of Down In A Hole, Sick Man and Junkhead, it’s hard to imagine that Staley was still doing heroin at the time or would ever do it again afterwards, but that’s the nature of drug addiction and it makes for some harrowing listening when you know that it would kill him a decade later. However, the quality of the music means that you keep coming back anyway, ranging from riffs as heavy as anything on Facelift (Them Bones) and songs as haunting and lovely as anything on Sap (Down In A Hole) as well as instant anthems like Would? and Rooster. Pretty much a perfect rock album.
Jar Of Flies (1994)
After touring Dirt, Alice In Chains ended up releasing another acoustic EP, and it was another stunning collection of music. With Mike Inez replacing Mike Starr on bass, and helping co-write several of the songs, the development of the band in the previous two years is evident on the stunning opening duo of Rotten Apple and Nutshell, two of my favourite AIC tunes, showcasing the amazing harmonies that Staley and Cantrell were capable of, as well as the impressive musicianship of a supposed ‘heavy metal’ band. Instrumental Whale & Wasp is yet more evidence of that, while the catchy No Excuses shows their knack for a great alternative pop song. Nowadays, it’s always paired with Sap to make a mini double album of relentless quality, and in its day it was the first EP to top the US Billboard charts. Not bad.
Alice In Chains (1995)
Layne Staley’s drug demons had started to get the better of him again after the release of Jar Of Flies, and the band fell apart slightly before reconvening to record their third full-length album. One thing instantly notable is the front cover photo of a dog with three legs and the fact that Jerry Cantrell has so many lead vocals, which caused people to speculate that the cover reflected a four-man band with one man mostly missing. But then again, people had been speculating about Staley being dead many times around the recording, and that was something that Cantrell addressed in his lyrics to the crunching lead single Grind. AIC the album got a mixed reception when it came out, but time has been kind to it. For one thing, it contains the wonderful Heaven Beside You and Over Now, while some of the more experimental (and long) tracks like Sludge Factory and Frogs definitely reward repeat listens. Sadly, it was to be the last studio album by this line-up and the last for 14 years.
MTV Unplugged (1996)
Staley’s problems curtailed any touring promotion for AIC the album, but they did manage to record an Unplugged appearance for MTV. Depending on your perspective, it was either one last hurrah for the Staley-era band, or a heartbreaking false dawn. As someone who remembers the optimism he felt when listening to it when it was released, I feel more of the latter emotion. Staley sounds happy and focused on it, swapping jokes with Cantrell about their lack of recent live shows, while the band mess around with audience members Metallica by pretending to play Enter Sandman at one point. A fantastic new song called The Killer Is Me gets its first airing and the acoustic versions of songs from AIC and Dirt fit in well with material from Sap and Jar Of Flies. One of the greatest Unplugged shows.
Music Bank (1999)
Named after the music studios where the band came together, this three-disc set includes highlights from their various albums, plus previously unreleased live songs, demos and soundtrack recordings (for those who didn’t want to fork out for the Last Action Hero soundtrack) as well as the last two songs the band recorded with Layne Staley, Get Born Again and the tragically appropriate Died. This alone makes it an essential purchase for fans.
Normally, live albums can only really be described as cash-in products, but for a band who were (seemingly) so good live, but were able to get it together enough to actually do it very often, this collection represents the only chance many of their fans would ever get to experience it. It reflects the turmoil of their erratic touring schedule, with the first nine tracks recorded before 1993 and the last five coming from 1996 and the final two shows they ever played with Staley, across two nights in Japan. You can still say that it’s a bit of a cash-in, a record company trying to get money out of a band who looked no closer to making new music (two greatest hits albums followed in the next six years), but it’s worthwhile.
Black Gives Way To Blue (2009)
On 5th April 2002, Layne Staley died. Seven years later, Alice In Chains released their fourth album, with new frontman William DuVall taking his place. Replacing a singer whose unique voice was such a key part of the band’s sound was a near-impossible task, but DuVall has done an incredible job of both sounding a bit like Staley but also being his own man within an Alice In Chains who sound like they’ve never been away. Of course, that Cantrell’s vocals were also a big part of the mix originally helps maintain some consistency, but the most important thing about Black Gives Way To Blue is that the songs are good enough to stand up to what went before, not least the fantastic singles Check My Brain and A Looking In View. Getting Elton John to play piano on the moving title track (a tribute to their fallen comrade) was a heck of a coup and it’s a perfect finale to an album that both looks back on an amazing career, a life cut short and a band that got born again.