Into the flood again

Finally got round to watching Music Bank recently: the 1999 collection of Alice in Chains videos, along with an early hometown documentary and clips of the band on the road and in the studio.

When Alice in Chains first broke on the scene in 1990 with Facelift, it was as a noisy rock band churning out Sabbath-style riffs with the odd bit of funk thrown in (funk/metal crossover, those were the days…). Judging by the original version of the ‘We Die Young’ video, their record label saw them as a band that would appeal to metallers, and I must confess to first seeing AiC supporting Megadeth on the Rust in Peace tour (Poole Arts Centre, since you ask). They were louder than the main act, ear-manglingly so. Being louder than Megadeth is no minor achievement.

Their wider potential appeal was soon recognised, as witnessed in the second version of ‘We Die Young’: out with the headbanging and the studded leather jackets, in with a colourful, retro psychedelic video. ‘Man in the Box’, a moody black-and-white affair with imagery that mirrors the song’s lyrics, rapidly upped the goatee, army boots and cut-off jeans quotient. Alice in Chains were making a name for themselves.

And then came grunge. Both timing and location were ideal for the band, whose evolving sound led them in 1992 to Dirt, one of the finest albums of its era. It defined a significant aspect of the Seattle sound, including those same heavy, detuned guitars that underpinned much of Soundgarden’s music. Jerry Cantrell continued to lay down some trademark dense riffs whilst also using more clean-tone and acoustic sounds, his wah-wah pedal creating spidery, disorientating sounds that reflected Layne Staley’s lyrics (about which more below). And behind them lay the muscular drumming of Sean Kinney and fluid, sinuous bass lines of Mike Starr.

This was the band at its peak, and Music Bank includes the videos for several songs from this album. The videos fall prey to the heavy-handed literalism common to early 90s MTV. ‘Down in a Hole’ has, err, lots of things going down holes. ‘Angry Chair’ features a chair quite prominently, though it is hard to tell if the chair is actually angry. ‘Rooster’ in particular has dated badly, although its heartfelt anti-war message remains relevant. ‘Would?’ – dedicated to Andrew Wood – also appeared on the Singles soundtrack.

Staley’s lyrics on Dirt are largely an exploration of his heroin use and the complex emotions it engendered: pain, anger, self-loathing, frustration, pleasure, defiance, self-justification. Raw and honest, Dirt can be a challenging listen.

It was not, however, Staley’s heroin use that saw the first change in the band’s line up, but Starr’s. Unable to function as the band’s bassist on tour, the decision was made to replace him with the equally shaggy-haired Mike Inez. Sadly Starr never shook off his heroin and alcohol addictions, and he died in March 2011, aged 44.

Alice in Chains followed up Dirt with Jar of Flies (released jointly along with an earlier EP, Sap), a reflective, mellower EP giving Cantrell the chance to show his widening range of skills. Two videos appear from Jar of Flies/Sap: ‘No Excuses’ and ‘I Stay Away’, the latter with its circus freak show theme reminiscent of something by Tool.

After this, however, Staley’s heroin addiction became an ever-bigger problem. Two things immediately strike you about the videos from the band’s self-titled third album, Alice in Chains, and from Unplugged. First, Cantrell is rapidly becoming the main singer, with Staley providing little more than support on the choruses. Cantrell has a respectable voice, but the absence of Staley’s distinctive vocals diminishes the band’s sound. Second, Staley looks desperately gaunt and, especially in ‘Over Now’, absent and hollow-eyed. Swathed in black and unsuccesfully masking his fragility, in ‘Grind’ he is painfully thin next to his band members. It’s noticeable also on the Live album that the quality of Staley’s vocal performances drops significantly for the songs taken from 1996 compared to those from earlier tours.

Music Bank closes with ‘Get Born Again’, one of the last couple of songs recorded with Staley. The band had by this point largely been in limbo for three years, Cantrell even releasing a solo album, Boggy Depot, that tellingly he toured with Inez and Kinney as his rhythm section. It’s poignant to watch Music Bank knowing that Staley’s seemingly inexorable decline had another three awful years to run before his addiction would finally defeat him in April 2002, aged only 34. (At the end of Lost Dogs disc 2, there’s a hidden track called 4/20/02, written by Eddie Vedder when he heard the news of Staley’s death.)

As Music Bank was released in 1999, I’ve not mentioned anything about AiC’s recent rebirth with the recruitment of new singer William Duvall and the release of the excellent Black Gives Way to Blue. I’ll save that for a later blog.

(23/12/11) PS Since writing this, I stumbled across this thoughtful review of Alice in Chains, the last album recorded with Staley:

Well worth a read, along with the other Shangri-La posts.


About Mark Anstee

guitarist, Radio Seattle View all posts by Mark Anstee

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