Facelift (Columbia ‘90) Rating: A-
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 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. “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 album’s first half. 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 (i.e. Black Sabbath influenced) 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 that you can almost feel. Many of these songs contain complex, shifting dynamics that show off an awesome 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 sole recommendation would be to put it on, press play, turn it up to 10, and prepare to be awed.
Jar Of Flies (Columbia ‘93) Rating: A+
Once again Alice in Chains showed their collective greatness when they released this experimental EP in 1993 (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 soon after its release, a rare feat 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,” arguably the best song here, on which Staley 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 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 deep 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 appears to have 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 several songs rather than Staley. “Grind,” “Heaven Beside You” and “Again” were the fine radio tracks, but also excellent are the bludgeoning “Head Creeps” and the evocative “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 “God Am” and “Over Now” (my personal favorite) showcase Cantrell’s searing guitar work. True, some of these songs occasionally wallow in their own sludge (the album could use a little trimming) and there are no instantly identifiable classics, but perseverance will reward listeners with another highly satisfying 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) 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 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 Alice In Chains, 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 "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 become 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, thereby grounding Alice In Chains for good I would think (hope).