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A new double disc anthology from Sony ponders the question "what might have been?" if only Alice In Chains' Layne Staley had lived.

Music Review: Alice In Chains – The Essential Alice In Chains

This Tuesday, Sony will honor the memory of Seattle grunge-rock pioneers Alice In Chains by releasing one of those marvelous Essential compilations they've become known for, whether the artists warrant the treatment or not.

Forgive me if I sound a bit cynical here. But this series issues supposedly reverent career retrospectives in the same way you and I change socks. They issue these so-called "tributes" in a pretty cavalier fashion if you ask me. There are those who clearly deserve the treatment. Dylan, Springsteen, and Johnny Cash come to mind for example. And there are those who very clearly do not warrant it at all (with apologies to Rob Halford and company, this would fall to the Judas Priests of the world).

Alice In Chains, however, is a band who clearly deserve it. In Spades. In the short history of the early nineties revolution that was the grunge sound coming out of Seattle, Alice In Chains is singularly the band that represents that sound's (which would be grunge's) great "what if" story?

Let me explain.

If Kurt Cobain will go down in musical history as the single greatest tragedy to ever come out of Seattle's brief musical revolution, then AIC's Layne Stayley surely has to rank right up there as it's greatest example of potential largely unfulfilled. As in Seattle's single biggest "What If?"

Let's get this straight okay?

For all Kurt Cobain did with Nirvana, there is simply no denying (at least in my mind), that much of it had to with being in exactly the right place at the right time. As somebody who was actually there at the time it all happened, there is simply no way I will ever minimize the impact of a song like "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Nor will I minimize Kurt Cobain's very unique ability to combine what were essentially great pop sensibilities with the sort of harder edge that so uniquely connected with the disenfranchisement felt by the youth of the early nineties at the time. However…

Like I said, I was there. I know exactly what actually went on. I may have been mainly working on the other side of the tracks in Seattle's musical ghetto with guys like Sir Mix A Lot. But I was there. And as far as pure musical talent goes, Alice In Chains were miles ahead of bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden, in my personal opinion.

Which is where we find ourselves in terms of the haunting "what if?" posed by this particular Essential retrospective of Alice In Chains. When Layne Staley died in 2002 of a heroin overdose, not too many people in Seattle were surprised. As I said, I worked in the Seattle music industry at the time on the other, less celebrated, side of the tracks with artists like Sir Mix A Lot. But I hung out with people more associated with Seattle's so-called "Grunge Scene" of the time.

And when we heard Layne Staley had died, like the largely uncelebrated Seattle pioneer that came before him — Mother Lovebone's Andrew Wood — not too many of us were surprised. Unfortunately, we expected it. Staley's excesses, if you can call them that, were somewhat legendary by that time.

This was a guy who pretty much had the world on a string and by that time chose to blow it all off. In the months before Staley died the death so many of us had feared for so long, he was blowing off huge tours with the likes of Metallica, just to stay at home in his Capitol Hill apartment to shoot junk into his arm. Like I said, it is something I will never understand. But then I am not Layne Staley.

The Essential treatment given Alice In Chains on this two disc compilation clearly shows this was a band that was growing by leaps and bounds before they were cut short so prematurely. Of all the bands to emerge from the Seattle grunge explosion of the early nineties — and again, I count them all from Nirvana to Soundgarden — Alice In Chains is the band that was progressing musically at the quickest pace.

Every bit of that musical progression is captured on this great retrospective – which is as "anti-cookie cutter" as you will find in the entire Sony Essential series of repackages. The band, most probably in the form of guitarist Jerry Cantrell, was clearly involved in packaging the tracks here for mass consumption. So let's cut to the chase shall we?

The evolution of Alice In Chains as a musical unit, in just a few short years in the early nineties, is simply extraordinary. And it is fully captured on this great Sony Essential retrospective, which at least appears to have full band involvement. Reading the liner notes, it's kind of funny to hear AIC's spin on things however.

To hear the band tell it, they were the alternative to the glam rock coming out of the late eighties. Truth be told, AIC came from that very metal scene they seek to distance themselves from here, in the liner notes of this retrospective. No matter.

There is no denying the musical progression represented on "Essential's" two discs. When you put it in its proper perspective, there is simply no band from the original early nineties Seattle explosion that grew quicker than Alice In Chains. Regardless of where they came from. That musical progression is documented fully here.

From the Cult-like crunch of "Man In The Box" through the more introspective angst of songs like "Rooster," no stone is left unturned. Which by the time of the songs from the more acoustically driven Jar Of Flies EP, leaves the listener wandering for what might have been.

Like I said, you've got to wonder where this band might have gone had Layne Staley only lived.

Strictly musically speaking, they are without equal in terms of the music which came from Seattle in the nineties. This set finally gives them that justice.

Well done Sony.

About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.

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