If there’s an EP out there that may as well have been released as an album after perhaps adding one song or so, it’s Jar Of Flies. Since it isn’t considered a full length, that makes Dirt my favorite Alice In Chains album, but truly, this is what I call the counterpart to Dirt. Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell have this wonderful gift of being able to literally make the listener feel the pain, anguish, and suffering that they went through simply with their voices. Dirt makes you feel absolutely filthy and worthless, as every part of it is dark, hateful, depressing, and gives off the feeling of hopelessness in the most beautiful way. Jar Of Flies, takes that, gives you the same mindset, but at the end of the day is able to tell you “hey, it’ll be alright,” and that’s why this disc is absolutely essential in every way in the discography. Most importantly, it’s turning twenty-five years old!
If it isn’t already worthy of being an album as is, get this; Jar Of Flies was the first EP in history to soar to number one of the Billboard 200 within a week of release. It was also somewhat of an accident. Shortly before this, Mike Starr was fired from the band, and when they returned to Seattle to focus on new material, it turned out they had been evicted. With the complications within the band and this unwelcoming surprise, it lead to more feelings of depression, and the band decided to experiment with some acoustic guitars just for the hell of it. Turns out, the label heard it and liked it so much, and the rest is history.
Like I said though, this one has a more reassuring feeling than the preceding full length, partially due in part by the heavy usage of acoustic guitars. The band also used a lot of musical experimentation here, so it made for a big divide in write-ups. There are the “weird ones” and the “normal ones,” if that makes sense. The normal ones still dance around in emotional delivery, though. The famous “No Excuses” is very upbeat and has such a happy feeling to it with steady drum beats, layered acoustic guitars, and dual vocals making it smoother than peanut butter. “Don’t Follow,” although smooth, is so much slower and doesn’t inject any signs of upping the tempo until the very end, and it almost has a country vibe. And then “Nutshell” stays calm but gives off a far more somber gut feeling, as it’s darker in concept and the vocal delivery could not be grungier, despite the riffs being mostly acoustic. Electric guitars do make an appearance in the background here, which is like a nice little garnish. As for “I Stay Away,” it’s basically the exact same formula but even whinier and a pinch harder.
Now it’s time to get weird! Album opener “Rotten Apple” anybody? This is a longer track that is super heavy on the bass and also utilizes a talk box. Say, I didn’t know we were still talking about Bon Jovi! In all seriousness though, this is definitely a downer in the most inviting way, and there couldn’t have been a better song to precede “Nutshell.” “Whale & Wasp” is a very whiny instrumental that uses acoustics in the background this time and focuses on giving an uneasy feeling to the listener with electric guitars in the foreground. I also don’t believe that there’s even a drop of drums on this. And then album closer “Swing On This” is another bass heavy one that drives the minor tones deep into the surface, with twangy guitars as well. So really, the one factor that keeps this consistent is the acoustics and layered vocal work. Every song still has an identity of its own, and as depressing as it gets, there’s a lot more life reassurance to this record than what the band has done previously.
Something I’ve always loved about Alice In Chains is that they stood out from the grunge scene the most, and I’m an honest believer that Jar Of Flies actually helped kill grunge. Seriously, if you wanna talk about its influence, it came up right around the end of grunge’s couple year run, and bands started either formulating the new sounds in hard rock, or writing softer alternative rock and pop tunes. Coincidence? I think not! Okay, maybe this is a bit of a stretch, but clearly it had an impact on a lot of people back in 1994 with the way it was received.
That said, it without a doubt holds up today too. This is something that just about anybody can get into, including people who crave aggressive heavy metal as well as laid back hippies. There is some real magic to this accidental release that seems to hook just about everybody, and it’s timeless. Twenty five years may not seem like that long of a time, but I assure you it will still be relevant in fifty years. I’ll close with this; I’m super thankful for the label overhearing this and wanting to release it.
Jar Of Flies came out on January 25th, 1994 through Columbia Records and was released on tape cassette and CD. There were a small number of vinyl versions released in other countries, but they’re very tough to come across and some are worth quite a lot. No vinyl reissues have been pressed to my knowledge, so have fun searching for an original. Find those or the other less valuable formats right here.