Seattle Decisions: Part 2 - Alice In Chains
'Dirt,' the best Doom Metal album of the Grunge era?
The first Alice In Chains song that caught my imagination was ‘Them Bones’. I mean, just look at the video! Leather jackets, long hair, head banging, and it looks like they’re on Mars or something! To an impressionable teenager (and especially a young metalhead) AIC ticked all the boxes.
But there was something odd about the way they were marketed. I loved all of the new Seattle bands. AIC were part of the big 4 that were made up by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden. These were four very different sounding bands, but lumping in AIC with the other three never sat right with me.
In simple terms, Alice in Chains were more metal than their peers. They sounded Metal, looked Metal, but there was something else, something that is more than the sum of their parts. It was woven in the vocal interplay between vocalist Layne Staley and guitar player Jerry Cantrell. The bass and drums were often slow and portentous. Lyrically AIC were dark. But getting back to the vocals, the thing that stood out is that Layne Staley’s voice sounded like it wanted to fuck you up. If the ancient Gods of the underworld had human voices, Anubis and Hades would have sounded like Layne Staley. Layne affected a nasal drawl on some tunes (as did his peers like Kurt Cobain, Billy Corgan, and J Mascis). But his vocal range went far beyond that. A natural tenor, he could hit high notes with surprising ease. As a metal fan himself, he was practised at metal growls and interspersed them throughout the songs. Jerry Cantrell, the lead guitar player, has a lovely singing voice himself. When the two harmonised, they usually did so in the same key - simply allowing the differences in their voices play together. At times, Cantrell sounds like a really good country or folk singer. Staley sounds like a rock star.
Of all the Seattle bands that erupted on the music scene in the early nineties, Alice in Chains were perhaps the darkest. The lyrics to ‘Angry Chair’ (above) allude to an addict’s struggles with sobriety.
Pink cloud has now turned to gray, oh
All that I want is to play, hey
Get on your knees, time to pray, oh
These lyrics resonated with me as a teenager, weirdly foreshadowing my years of addiction, sobriety, and relapse in my twenties and thirties.
Their debut album ‘Facelift’ is as good an album as any released in the grunge era, their second full length, ‘Dirt’ is one of the best. Staley sneers, growls, bellows, shrieks, and croons his way through twelve epic tracks. His voice is one of the defining ones for the grunge era.
Like it’s contemporary albums, ‘Ten’ by Pearl Jam, and ‘Nevermind’ by Nirvana, it has a distinctive sonic coherence. It’s also pretty much an epic at over 57 minutes long. There isn’t a ballad to be found anywhere on the album, though there are plenty of slower songs. Not the kind of slow songs, where you’d be hoping to ask a girl out to dance as a teenager. These are slow songs in the tradition of Black Sabbath or early Swans. The slow tracks are down tempo, riff-filled, teeth-grindingly sludgy dirges. Staley’s vocals combined with Cantrell’s riffs create a dissonant wave of sound that as jarring as it is sublime.
Ironically enough, Alice in Chains didn’t need the grunge movement to crack the big time. By the time ‘Nevermind’ had hit the top of the charts globally, ‘Facelift’ had sold 400,000 copies and AIC had supported Van Halen on tour. Their most popular song, ‘Would’ was tacked on to the end of the album as a very definite full stop. ‘Would’ also featured on the soundtrack to ‘Singles’, a Cameron Crowe movie who’s soundtrack was as much a part of 90s lore as the soundtracks for 'The Crow’ and ‘Judgement Night’.
If you have never heard an Alice in Chains song, then ‘Would’ is a great starting place. The opening bass line from Mike Starr is ominous and brooding. Sean Kinney’s drumming is slow and restrained. Jerry Cantrell actually sings all of the verses as lead, with Staley showing his rock star chops on the chorus.
I’m hard pressed to pick my favourite song from this album. Alice in Chains are on heavy rotation in the Aquanaut’s submerged stronghold. There’s a wonderful reprise on several tracks, notably on ‘Rain When I Die’ and '‘Down in a Hole’. One of them maybe? "Sickman", "Junkhead" and "God Smack", are better warnings about heroin use than any government placed advert. ‘Dam That River’ is basically Layne and Jerry singing over a thrash metal riff.
The denouement of the Layne Staley era of Alice in Chains is incredibly sad. Staley died in 2002 of a drug overdose and original bass player Mike Starr also died of an overdose in 2011. They released more music after ‘Dirt’ and it was quality stuff. But ‘Dirt’ is of that strange two year period in the early nineties where alt rock was in ascendence. The album has sold over three million copies worldwide.
I’ll be returning to the Layne Staley era of Alice in Chains in another post. The three LPs he features on, defined a style of grunge and popularised Sludge Metal, in a way bands like Swans and Melvins didn’t have the reach for. It’s also worth mentioning that Alice in Chains are still an active band. They’ve managed the formidable task of creating a legacy separate to the Layne era, for which they are rightly lauded. It’s great music and I’m sure Layne and Mike would be proud.
Next post: How we streamed music in the nineties.
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"Them Bones" is one helluva an opening track. It's a great record all the way through, but if asked to pic, that's probably my favorite. That riff grabs you and just never lets go.
P.S. Where I grew up, there were guys that looked/sounded just like Layne Staley; most of 'em were looking for a reason to F you up.
I'm listening to Dirt right now and I've just realized—this is the first time I've ever heard it in CD quality! I've previously only heard it on bootleg cassette! Sounds great!