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Music Review: The Essential Alice In Chains

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Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden – when it came to grunge, these were the bands that got the most press. But grinding away at a slightly less popular level, Seattle’s Alice In Chains might well have been the poster child for grunge. Bleak, moody and thunderous, 28 of Alice In Chains’ biggest hits have been gathered together in the new Essential Alice In Chains collection.

Of course, whether they were “grunge” or not depends on who you ask – in liner notes to this set, Steffan Chirazi says Alice “were never simply grunge.” Yet they were of that time, and like it or not, they got lumped in with the Seattle sound. The partnership of lead guitarist/songwriter Jerry Cantrell and the distinctive voice of Layne Staley led to a fertile crop of dark, beautiful songs.

Unlike many hard-rock acts of the time, Alice In Chains weren’t afraid to be fragile – their songs swung between fierce, acidic assaults and raw, acoustic-tinged laments. Nearly all the hits are here – “Would,” the pummeling anthem from Cameron Crowe’s film Singles, “Rooster,” Cantrell’s ode to his father’s Vietnam service; “No Excuses,” “Angry Chair,” and more.

With album titles like Dirt and Jar Of Flies, you don’t expect Alice In Chains to be singing sunny ditties about flowers. Staley’s heroin addiction, which ultimately claimed his life, is a dark cloud beneath many of the band’s songs.

Essential is a solid collection perfect for novices and longtime fans alike. It’s broader in scope than the short Greatest Hits, while not quite as massive as the 1999 four-CD box set Music Bank. (For a band that only recorded three full albums and a handful of EPs, Alice has had a lot of collections already.) Essential isn’t quite perfect – the excellent track “Down In A Hole” is inexplicably missing, and there’s nothing from their plugged-in Live album.

Like most bands in the 1990s, they recorded an MTV Unplugged album – but unlike many hard-rock acts, Alice’s songs adapted surprisingly well to the stark format, and their Unplugged session is a brooding near-masterpiece; excerpted here is the brittle, striking “Over Now,” which has a magnificent forlorn beauty to it.

And like Nirvana, Alice In Chains’ story ended in a tragedy. After a girlfriend’s death, singer Staley sank into depression and withdrew from the world. He was found dead in his Seattle home in April 2002, from a heroin and cocaine overdose. It was a bleak end to a voice trafficked in dark themes, but always clung to a sympathetic melody.

The band is still around — but without Staley’s distinctive moan at its center, it won’t quite feel the same. Cantrell, the other bandmates and a rotating cast of vocalists (currently Comes With The Fall singer William DuVall is at the helm) have begun touring again. While it’s nice to see Cantrell carrying on (he has also had a well-regarded solo career), I wonder if it’s still quite Alice In Chains.

The future might be just beginning, but the legacy of Alice In Chains is assured. While they weren’t always lauded in the same terms as other Seattle bands of the time, they had a distinctive voice and something to say. While the unrelentingly grim tone of their songs might have restricted their range, few fans of 1990s music won’t start head banging when the power chords of “Would?” begin slamming away.

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About Nik Dirga

  • Alice In Chains was by far my most favorite so-called ‘grunge’ band! And they were also the most ‘heavy metal’ one of all the bands coming out of Seattle at the time, with Cantrell’s Iomi influenced guitar riffs…

    Staley’s vocals were dark and sinister, and in hindsight, I guess they all made sense…

    And Cantrell had those addictive riffs that made a lot of sense to all of us back in the day!!

    Sabbath had ‘I am Iron man…’

    Well, Jerry realized where he was at, and AIC started off with ‘I am Iron God?!?!…

    Brilliant, but only if you can understand the genious behind it…