Alice In Chains were one of the few bands, in my opinion, to overcome the stigma that the label of “grunge” brought to bands in the 90s. While it took years (if even that) for the likes of Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots to be thought of as more alternative rock, Alice In Chains sort of stuck in the middle. They don’t quite fit into any particular genre. The amount of blues they are influenced by makes one want to put them in with the like of Guns N’ Roses, yet the heaviness that guitarist Jerry Cantrell brings to the table, combined with the vocal harmonies the band is now famous for, puts it somewhere in metal. (Cantrell, for the record, actually believes the band to be heavy metal.) But nonetheless, the influence the band has had has been enormous. Dirt remains one of the best albums of the 90s, and Layne Staley is remembered as one of modern rock’s greatest singers. It’s about time we go back and go over the albums that made this band what they are today.
Alice in Chains’s debut puts the band in fairly regular grunge territory. The album has a sense of filthiness about it, in that the sound is sort of blunt; the production didn’t seem very high on anybody’s to do list. But that’s just the point; it’s not meant to be beautiful or polished. (If grunge brought anything new to the table, it was that apathy about sound; why else would the likes of Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell (in his early Soundgarden years, that is) sound so…uninspired?) Jerry Cantrell’s guitars are heavy and muddy, and Layne Staley’s vocals are about as “grungy” as they’ll ever be.
Facelift, however, is a pretty strong debut all in all. “Man in the Box” was essentially AIC’s breakout hit, and is arguably the band’s signature song. Already Cantrell and Staley’s lyricism is notably dark, with “Man in the Box” in particular producing some intense imagery (“Feed my eyes / now you’ve sewn them shut; “I’m the dog who gets beat / shove my nose in shit”). Critically it was a success, with critics lauding its universality to all types of rock fans, and commercially, Facelift was the first grunge album to ever reach platinum status.
If “Man in the Box” is AIC’s signature song, then Dirt was the band’s signature album, and quite possibly their magnum opus. While Facelift was dark, Dirt exponentially increased the psychological bleakness the band was capable of. Layne Staley sheds an interesting light on things like drug addiction and death (“Junkhead” and “Them Bones” respectively), while Jerry Cantrell recounts his father’s experiences in the Vietnam War with “Rooster.” The album’s sound matches its lyricism, with Cantrell bringing some pummeling guitars into the mix (the riff on “Hate to Feel” is just insane, if you ask me). But what makes Dirt really stand out from the rest of the band’s discography is the unmatched pairing of Cantrell and Staley’s vocals. Although this was something they had explored on earlier releases, the dual vocals hits a major sweet spot here, really setting the mood for each song perfectly. Sometimes it comes off as just plain creepy, like the chorus of “Dirt,” while other times it adds to the sadness that a track can create, like “Down in a Hole.”
Jar of Flies (1994)
While Jar of Flies is an EP, it’s a pivotal moment for the band, as they begin to shed the distortion on their guitars just a little less, allowing some interesting songwriting to take place. Jerry Cantrell, as always, uses his wah pedal to great use—best exemplified in the eerie opener “Rotten Apple,” and his vocal harmonies with Layne Staley make for a cool-sounding EP overall. The band flirts with some different sounds in Jar of Flies—“Swing On This” has a bouncy, blues feel, while “Don’t Follow” is one of the band’s first songs to significantly use acoustic guitar.
Although this is a short release by the band, it’s solid and is just fun to listen to. “Rotten Apple” is (in my opinion) one of the greatest songs the band has ever written, and the band definitely takes a much-needed left turn into softer territory with this release.
Alice in Chains (1995)
Despite Layne Staley’s crippling heroin addiction (which significantly reduced his contributions on the album), the band’s self-titled effort managed to fill out the band’s sound some. The heaviness previously found on Dirt is very much still there, but it’s used to create an atmosphere rather than be a deciding component of the songwriting. (Essentially, distortion seems to be added on as an afterthought on most of the songs, just in case the regular riffs weren’t enough to keep a track afloat.) Mostly, the album is acoustic-based, with Cantrell having a larger hand in vocals, handling lead vocal duties on “Heaven Beside You,” “Grind,” and “Over Now.”
Despite being acoustic, though, the songwriting on Alice in Chains sounds downright scary. The notes the band employs over the album create a space of druggy paranoia, as if Staley had injected his fix into the master recordings rather than his own body.
Black Gives Way to Blue (2009)
Following Layne Staley’s death in 2002, the band went on unofficial hiatus for three years, in which Jerry Cantrell released his second solo album Degradation Trip. Soon enough, though, he reformed the group, replacing Staley with William DuVall, and released the first album of a new era of Alice in Chains, Black Gives Way to Blue.
Sonically the album is an amalgam of AIC’s “softer” sounds (Jar of Flies and Alice in Chains) and their earlier, “harder” albums, with an emphasis on the latter. The stoner-esque grooves people came to love from Dirt were back, in tracks like “Check My Brain” and “Acid Bubble,” but Black Gives Way had a wider palate than just that. “Your Decision” and “When the Sun Rose Again” continued the vein of more acoustic Alice songs, and the title track in particular made use of a softness that had really never been heard before in an AIC release ever.
Reception, however, was mixed. Commercially, the album was a success, and most critics regarded the album highly—including the Elton John feature in the album’s title track—but some fans—Staley loyalists to the end—criticized DuVall’s vocals, which, considering Staley’s unique vocal style, is somewhat justified.
The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here (2013)
AIC’s latest output isn’t much different from Black Gives Way to Blue in terms of sound, though the band sounds a little tighter and more comfortable with William DuVall’s vocals. There are still tons of heavy guitars—“Phantom Limb” perhaps being one of the best riffs the band has written to date—mixed with acoustic pieces like “Voices” or “Choke.” The album’s strange title and lyrics are mostly a commentary on religion, referring to the belief by some Christians that dinosaurs were created by Satan to confuse the faith of the masses.
While Devil doesn’t really progress the sound the band brought back in Black Gives Way to Blue, it’s not exactly a bad album. The songs that supported the album—“Stone” and “Hollow”—were decent fits into the AIC songbook. It’s worth a listen if you’re a hardcore Alice fan or just want some good rock, but don’t expect something completely out there like the self-titled album was back in the day.
While Alice In Chains may not be the most “progressive” and “experimental” band out there, they do what they do best: namely, making music that has some emotional depth, but also manages to rock people’s socks off. And while Layne Staley may never be perfectly replaced, William DuVall does a great job, considering the massive shoes he is expected to fill. Hopefully we’ll be seeing something new from the band this year, to add another dusty boulder to the rock-solid house that is Alice in Chains.