This album predated the grunge explosion, though the band would thereafter get lumped in with the other major Seattle bands (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden) who "broke" at around the same time. Still, each had their own distinct sound, and Facelift was an ultra heavy and dark debut album with a brilliant beginning barrage. “We Die Young” immediately introduced Jerry Cantrell’s crunching guitar riffs and singer Layne Staley’s intense vocal delivery, while the heavily wah wah-ed “Man In The Box” became a signature song and the one that first got the band noticed. Next, “Sea Of Sorrow” surges along on a memorable sing along chorus before the band gets more atmospheric for “Bleed The Freak” and “I Can’t Remember.” On the latter song you can really sense Staley’s feelings of helplessness, and (the overly long) “Love Hate Love” features an equally tormented vocal performance. The supremely heavy “It Ain’t Like That” and the brighter, bluesy “Sunshine” keep things rolling right along, but aside from “Confusion” the rest of the album can’t quite maintain the impressive pace of the earlier material. Still, the albums less than exemplary conclusion doesn’t too badly mar this strong introduction to the band’s singular sound. A big part of that sound is the band’s eerie vocal harmonies, which add a unique, otherworldly element to their thick and muscular attack. This is Alice in Chains’ most straightforwardly metallic album, and it's extremely effective as such, but this mighty quartet would soon broaden their palette considerably and deliver even more richly rewarding efforts.
Sap (Columbia ‘91) Rating: A-
This four song EP came as quite a surprise when it was first released (a fifth unlisted “song” is merely the guys messing around). Simply put, Sap proved that Alice in Chains were more than merely an exceptional heavy metal band. With vocal support from Ann Wilson of Heart, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, and Mark Arm of Mudhoney, this EP turns down the amps from Facelift while still maintaining the band’s trademark intensity. Jerry Cantrell’s songwriting sparkles, while Staley’s singing with his assorted partners remains riveting. Cantrell also takes his first lead vocal on “Brother,” though Wilson’s haunting backing wails steal the show. “Got Me Wrong” is another catchy winner that was featured in the hilarious cult movie Clerks, and the lighter “Right Turn” takes off when Cornell turns up and various voices (including Mark Arm’s) start to spectacularly fly all over the place (as usual, Cornell steals the show). The evocative “Am I Inside” is also memorable, as Alice in Chains bring acoustic instruments to the fore rather than bludgeon listeners with brute force. Yet the band’s chemistry and sound remain intact, as this was one band that refused to be restricted to straightforward heavy metal clichés; their growth would be spectacularly realized with their masterful next two efforts.
Dirt (Columbia ‘92) Rating: A+
It turns out that Alice in Chains were just getting started, and there’s just no way that I can do this masterpiece justice with this measly little review. Simply put, the relentlessly heavy Dirt is one the darkest, most exciting, despairingly beautiful albums of all time. Layered, churning riffs and a powerhouse rhythm section move along the strange vocal harmonies (which are as brilliant in their own disturbing way as those of The Beach Boys) to create a dense, foreboding sound. Many of these songs contain complex, shifting dynamics that show off a supremely talented musical unit, while the tortured vocals often focus on the destructive dangers of drug addiction. In fact, Staley would afterwards confess to a major heroin addiction (his “drug of choice,” so to speak), surprising nobody who listened to this album. Rather than celebrate or preach about their chosen lifestyle, Alice in Chains simply tell it like it is (or at least how they see it), and pretty it isn’t. But it is incredibly powerful, and the band’s increased sophistication was duly noted by the critics, who in particular appreciated “The Rooster,” a poignant tribute to Jerry Cantrell Sr., a Vietnam War veteran. Both the best heavy metal album of the decade and the best drug album ever made (a dubious distinction, to be sure), Dirt is certainly not for the faint of heart. However, listeners who like their music heavy should find the album hypnotic; highlights include “Them Bones,” “The Rooster,” “Angry Chair,” “Down In A Hole,” and “Would?,” but my recommendation would be to put it on, press play, turn it up to 10, and prepare to be awed.
Jar Of Flies (Columbia ‘94) Rating: A+
Once again Alice in Chains showed their collective greatness when they released this experimental EP in early 1994 (though at over 31 minutes this EP is longer than many classic LPs from the ‘60s). Sporting a versatility that shocked many listeners upon its release (a bigger shock was its ascension to the #1 Billboard slot upon its release, a first for an EP), Jar Of Flies showed that good things could happen when a group is allowed to “just mess around” in the studio, provided that they have the chemistry and talent to make it work. As with Sap, the band shows off their mellower side here, but again the music retains its dense potency. Acoustic guitars are often the primary musical ingredient, but the band’s increased melodicism makes Jar Of Flies even more impressive than the previous EP, while Jerry Cantrell’s versatile guitar playing, including many a stellar solo, reinforces his standing as a major talent. Jar Of Flies is a coldly beautiful yet often harrowing experience, and the vulnerable countryish ballad “Don’t Follow” can be seen as Cantrell’s pull no punches take on Staley’s drug addictions (“sleep in sweat the mirrors cold, see my face it’s growin’ old.”). Likewise, the less musically successful “Swing On This” can be seen as Staley’s ominous answer: “let me be, I’m alright, can’t you see I’m just fine.” More convincing is the desolate “Nutshell,” the best song here on which Staley movingly states “and yet I fight this battle all alone, no one to cry to, no place to call home.” Other highlights include the weirdly moody, wah wah-infested epic (6:59) “Rotten Apple,” the anthemic “I Stay Away,” a popular radio track on which strings lend a powerful hand, and the groovy, melodic hit single “No Excuses.” Even "Whale & Wasp," a mere mood enhancing guitar instrumental, seems perfectly in place, as one album after delivering one of the best heavy metal albums ever, Alice In Chains delivered one of my favorite "chill out" albums of all time. Note: Former Ozzy Osboure bassist Mike Inez replaced Mike Starr here, thereby improving the band's songwriting talent.
Alice In Chains (Columbia ‘95) Rating: A-
After Layne’s Mad Season side project Alice came back with this much-anticipated album, the one with the sad three legged dog on the cover. And though I’ll readily admit that these guys are one of my all time favorite bands, I must also admit that it took awhile for this album to sink in, and that I initially regarded it as a disappointment. That’s because the hooks aren’t as ready made, nor do they sink in as deeply as on Dirt, an album that I consider to be an absolute masterpiece. Drug references again invade the lyrics, which is a little tiring at this point, but they say to "write about what you know," and lines like “you’d be well advised not to plan my funeral before the body dies” would prove eerily prophetic. On a more positive note, the band continues to expand their sound, as a middle ground between the ultra heavy Dirt and the more melodic Jar Of Flies has been reached, though they generally lean toward the heavy side of things. The songwriting chores are also more evenly split up than in the past where Cantrell had dominated the songwriting credits, while Cantrell sings lead on a few songs rather than Staley, who writes the vast majority of the lyrics. “Grind,” “Heaven Beside You” and “Again” were the fine radio tracks, but also excellent are the bludgeoning “Head Creeps” and the evocative sing along “Shame In You.” “Nothin’ Song” likewise demonstrates the band’s ability to be both catchy and weird (in a good way), while intense mid-tempo tracks such as the rocking atheist anthem “God Am” and the soulful, bluesy finale “Over Now” (my personal favorite) showcase the band's haunting harmonies and Cantrell’s searing guitar work. True, some of these songs occasionally wallow in their own sludge, and several tracks, most notably (the still good) "Sludge Factory" and "Frogs," could use a little trimming. Also, perhaps there are few instantly identifiable classics along the lines of "Man In The Box," "Nutshell," "Rooster," and "Would?," but perseverance will reward listeners with yet another highly satisfying and in my opinion quite underrated album.
Alice In Chains Unplugged (Columbia ‘96) Rating: B
Presenting Alice’s lone live appearance in three years, Unplugged represented a holding pattern for the band since no studio album was forthcoming. And while none of these renditions come close to trumping their original counterparts, which is understandable considering the rustiness that they must’ve felt upon finally performing together live again, I get a kick out of it just the same, as it reinforces my opinion of Alice in Chains as one of the ‘90s most impressive bands (both inside and outside of heavy metal circles). Yes, Alice’s songs sound good (and heavy) in any forum, and despite some leaden moments these unadorned performances show off just how strong the band’s songbook is. What this album lacks are some revelatory covers (a la Nirvana Unplugged In New York) or song reworkings that could've made it more than merely a solid but unnecessary complement to their studio albums. A song or two from Facelift also would’ve been nice, but given the band’s lack of activity and Staley's weakened state (his voice has definitely been better as the drugs were taking their toll), this was certainly a successful look back.
Live (Columbia ‘00) Rating: B+
Layne's drug addictions pretty much put an end to the first incarnation of Alice In Chains (second if you include the Inez for Starr swap), so Jerry Cantrell started a solo career and Columbia started emptying the vaults, including a 3-cd box set, Music Bank (1999), which contained loads of rarities for hardcore fans, and several unnecessary "greatest hits" albums. This live album is an improvement on Unplugged, as the band plays these songs as they were meant to be played: moody, dark, and heavy. Eschewing the EPs for a track listing that smartly relies heavily on Dirt, most of these straightforward renderings are powerfully performed but add nothing new. Still, it's nice to be reminded what a great band Alice In Chains was during their heyday, and this album confirms what an impressive live unit the band could be. Granted, most of these versions are inferior to the studio ones, sometimes significantly so ("Them Bones," "God Am"), but tracks such as "Angry Chair" and "Rooster" are extremely powerful nevertheless. Whether in the studio or on stage, "Man In The Box" still stomps, "Dirt" still delivers memorable twisting riffs, "Again" still pummels with its pounding beats, and "Dam That River" still churns along. "Love, Hate, Love" is still dirge-like, still drags a bit, and is still compelling, and the album also includes two songs not previously found on any of their proper albums, "Queen Of The Rodeo" (originally on Music Bank) and "A Little Bitter" (originally on the Last Action Hero soundtrack). Actually, the former definitely sounds like a b-side (though it has its moments) and I would've preferred the great "What The Hell Have I" rather than the latter song, but at least these songs aren't overly familiar, which is perhaps the biggest problem with the rest of the album. Still, the track listing is extremely strong, and hearing Staley sing "and it 'aint so bad" on "Junkhead" at this late date is pretty devastating. Indeed, Layne Staley became the most predictable drug casualty since Johnny Thunders when his 34 year old body finally gave out on him after years of abuse in April 2002.
Black Gives Way To Blue (Virgin ‘09) Rating: A-
When I first heard about this album my thoughts were very negative, as I felt that the Alice In Chains moniker should've died with Layne. Let's face it, if Cantrell's solo career had taken off this reunion likely would've never happened, but then I got to thinking that Alice In Chains were primarily his band (essential though Layne was to their overall sound), and it's not their fault that Layne died on them. What's shocking to me is how good this album is; though it doesn't scale the mindbogglingly great heights of Dirt or Jar Of Flies (both of which this album recalls at times), this is another really good album that's comparable to the rest of their back catalog. Somewhat controversially, rather than continue as a three piece the band replaced Staley with one William DuVall, who shares lead vocals with Jerry and who also plays guitar and happens to be black, thereby increasing the surprise factor (but not in a bad way). And while he's no Layne Staley (one of the best vocalists ever), he's plenty good enough and their harmonies are still uniquely haunting (in fact when DuVall sings harmony at times he does sound eerily like Layne), while the band's overall sound is still wonderfully atmospheric and heavy as hell. Although Layne isn't around anymore, his ghost haunts this entire record; whereas earlier albums were the narrative to Layne's drug-fueled self-destruction, this album can be seen as what happens after that self-destruction takes his life and how it affects those around him. In a way it's both an epilogue and a fresh new beginning, albeit one that was 14 years in the making. This is made clear on the leadoff track, "All Secrets Known," a fitting album opener with great creeping riffs, those harmonies which still rule, and lyrics about this being a new beginning because "there's no going back." After that comes the smash single "Check Your Brain," whose mind melting, disorienting riff is an absolute killer, plus its dual harmomized vocals and catchy chorus also mark it as classic AIC. "Last Of My Kind" deals with the band's current state as the only grunge band from their era, besides Pearl Jam, to still be standing. Maybe it's a bit generic and overly reminiscent of "Damn That River," but more good twisting riffs and a deliciously dark aura more than compensates. The next song, "Your Decision," is the emotional centerpiece of the album. Musically recalling "Nutshell," lyrically this song is obviously about Layne's drug addiction and death. Filled with sadness, pain, regret, and even a sense of betrayal, the song also features more affecting harmonies and some soulful, searing guitar work from Cantrell, whose playing is in fine form throughout. Rather than get into a track-by-track analysis, I'll note the rest of the songs that I consider highlights. "When The Sun Rose" is more acoustic and somewhat exotic due to its creative percussive flourishes, with more nice guitar work, while "Lesson Learned" flat out rocks and has a good chorus. "Private Hell" is mellower and has more haunting harmonies, but it also has massively powerful surges at times and is lyrically affecting, while the title track ballad, featuring Elton John on piano, again directly addresses Layne's death, but this time it's a soothing and kind remembrance, which fittingly ends the album on a hopeful note. As for the rest of the songs, "A Looking In View," "Acid Bubble," and "Take Her Out" aren't bad either, they're just less impressive than the rest and bring the album down a bit on the whole, as it seems a bit samey sounding at times over its hour plus duration. Then again, releasing a shorter album would've seemed cheap after such a long absence, and the album holds up well as an entire entity and gets better with repeated plays. They may have spawned a lot of inferior imitators, but with or without Layne few can replicate the emotional resonance and impact that this band achieves when they're on their A game, which happens far more often than I expected. Indeed, with this album Alice somehow managed to make a heavy rock album that appeals to rock radio without selling out, that's true to their past without being a retread, and which pays the proper respects to Layne while proving that there's a future for this band after all. In a way it's their Temple Of The Dog tribute to Layne and it finally closes that last chapter in satisfying fashion. Whether future albums by this new incarnation of the band will measure up remains to be seen, but if not that won't take away from the fact that this album has earned its place in the band's legacy, and unlike the lead up to this album I won't have negative feelings about the next Alice In Chains album. In fact, I'm really looking forward to it.
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