Whether you view Alice in Chains as a metal band in disguise or part of the grunge movement that “killed” the genre in the 90s, there’s no denying the band’s massive influence. Their penchant for down-tuned moodiness has left its mark throughout the heavy rock world, whether it be in the darkest depths of doom or more mainstream derivatives. They’ve had their share of hits, but they also exhibit a genuine sense of misery that set them apart from their peers. Much of that emotion is associated with the departed Layne Staley’s distinct howl, but guitarist/vocalist Jerry Cantrell’s signature tone and songwriting may be just as integral to the band’s success, if not more so.
For this Rank and File, I’m breaking one of my biggest rules and including the EPs. In contrast to other bands’ tendencies to use the format for filler purposes, Sap and Jar of Flies are just as integral to Alice in Chains’ discography as their full-lengths. Each EP not only had its own hits but was fully immersed in the softer side that could only be hinted at elsewhere. It would also be a shorter article if they weren’t on here and we all know how much I love to hear myself talk…
Alice in Chains’ first EP was the band’s first step toward a truly distinct sound. While Sap doesn’t reach the melancholy that would be fully realized on Dirt later that year, it showcases a softer, more contemplative side that couldn’t have been captured on Facelift. It’s a very laid-back album as songs like “Got Me Wrong” ride relaxed grooves while “Brother” and “Right Turn” feature guest vocalists in a way that is more casual than exploitative. In some ways, it reflects the Seattle scene’s spontaneous nature prior to its inevitable commercialization.
I really wish “Love Song” wasn’t on here, though. I’ve never liked that thing.
Final Grade: B+
7) Rainier Fog
Rainier Fog is decidedly one of Alice in Chains’ more scaled back affairs. It is not only the band’s shortest full-length album to date but may also be their most straightforward. It’s very workmanlike, as the performances have the tightness one expects from the Duvall era, while the songs all hit the tried and true checkpoints and stylistic variety. These factors can make it seem by the numbers, but the undeniable talent still makes for a pleasant listen. It may be one of the band’s less essential albums, but fans should still enjoy it, especially if they also have any fondness for Jerry Cantrell’s solo work.
Final Grade: B+
6) The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here
After expelling the last of their demons on Black Gives Way to Blue, Alice in Chains’ second effort with William Duvall is almost ordinary. The emphasis on sludgy riffs and mopey vocal harmonies is still there, but they don’t hit quite as hard without the sheer agony of the efforts before it. Fortunately, the band remains focused on writing good songs. “Stone” and “Phantom Limb” feature plenty of Cantrell’s signature riff work, while other tracks like “Voices” and the title track have solid atmospherics. It’s a little vanilla by Alice in Chains standards, but this vanilla happens to be pretty damned delicious.
Final Grade: B+
Alice in Chains’ 1990 debut is proof that grunge wasn’t the instant transition that rock historians paint it to be. Remnants of the 80s linger throughout, as Layne’s vocals have a smug bravado that’d completely vanish in a couple years, while “Put You Down” and “I Know Somethin (Bout You)” are flat out glam songs. But at the same time, Cantrell’s muddy tone is firmly established, and a dark, disorienting atmosphere sets the album apart from anything else out at the time. The band hadn’t quite given in to their signature despair yet, but a combination of classic singles and doomy deep cuts makes worth checking out for diehards and casual fans alike. Also props to drummer Sean Kinney, who allegedly recorded his parts with a broken hand! True dedication right there.
Final Grade: A-
4) Alice in Chains
I’ve never seen an album that portrays a band’s self-destruction quite like this self-titled effort (aka Tripod). Albums with similar circumstances like Never Say Die! and Reinventing the Steel are often presented as if nothing is wrong, but Alice in Chains has no time for such façades. Layne’s worn out croak is caked in layers of effects, “So Close” and “Nothin’ Song” are blatant fillers, and song structures range from the most elementary to the sort of meandering that seems almost unfinished.
What should be a disaster ends up becoming beautiful. Layne’s crippled vocals prove to be a major asset, giving authenticity to his morose lyrics and strengthening the nasty guitar work. The riffs and song dynamics are effectively stirring despite their likely haphazard construction, and Cantrell truly comes into his own as a singer/songwriter on “Heaven Beside You” and “Over Now.” It’s a very challenging listen but one that fans will deeply appreciate.
Final Grade: A-
3) Black Gives Way to Blue
If Tripod details a band’s slow death, then Black Gives Way to Blue portrays its process of rebirth. While the tighter musicianship and more structured songwriting are a far cry from the band’s old methods, the murky atmosphere and grieving lyrics are enough to justify it as a product under the Alice in Chains banner. It also helps that there are some amazing songs like here; “Check My Brain” may be the catchiest song the band ever wrote, I love the doom influence on “A Looking in View” and “Acid Bubble,” and the title track is haunting as hell. I probably overrated this album when it first came out, but this is the one Duvall-era album that can go toe to toe with the 90s classics.
Final Grade: A-
Dirt was where Alice in Chains truly came into their own. While Facelift and Sap demonstrated the band’s uniqueness and willingness to experiment from the get-go, the musicianship is tighter here and arrangements are much more purposeful. The album is arguably more polished than what came before it, but it could be hardly called accessible either. Nothing about it feels dumbed down or catered to the lowest common denominator. Much like their peers in Soundgarden, the fact that numerous hits spawned from this album seems more like an incidental side effect than a conscious ploy.
And while the album isn’t a concept in the traditional sense, its narrative song sequencing is undeniable. In contrast to the more filler friendly classics that ran rampant through the 90s, every song on here plays an important role in the album’s flow while standing out on its own merits. The uncertain feelings of “Rain When I Die” and “Down in a Hole” play into the sarcastic dismissals on “Junkhead” and “Godsmack” that hit rock bottom on “Hate to Feel” and “Angry Chair.” It’s a haunting exploration of one’s darkest emotions that plays out like a 90s answer to Pink Floyd’s The Wall while offering a frighteningly distinct aesthetic. You know how this album is. Go listen to it again.
Final Grade: A
1) Jar of Flies
If Dirt is the band’s magnum opus, then Jar of Flies is the best representation of Alice in Chains as songwriters and musicians. Despite the complete lack of sludge riffs, the guitars are incredibly multi-faceted, as Cantrell demonstrates a mix of gentle strums and fluid leads that would put David Gilmour to shame. In addition, he and Layne perfect their vocal harmonies, while Kinney adjusts to simpler percussion and new bassist Mike Inez provides firm ground with his smooth bass lines. The songs also manage to cover a lot of ground despite a mere half hour runtime and range from the brooding “Rotten Apple” and “Nutshell” to the somber campfire jam on “No Excuses” and the country twang of “Swing on This.”
As corny as it sounds, Jar of Flies also has an almost innocent aura to it. Despite being more orderly and better developed than Sap, it was crafted in similarly spontaneous circumstances; the band just brought their acoustic instruments into the studio to see what would happen and basically recorded the whole thing in a week. It’s the perfect snapshot of the band’s efficient chemistry that tragically contrasts the downward spiral to come. Further speculation would be pure romanticism on my part, but hindsight makes this EP’s melancholy even more potent. Dirt should be played first for proper context, but Jar of Flies is just as essential.
Final Grade: A+