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"Scary's on the wall, scary's on his way"

Class C

Main Category: Punk/Grunge
Also applicable: Heavy Metal, Mope Rock
Starting Period: From Grunge To The Present Day
Also active in: --------




Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of an Alice In Chains fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Alice In Chains fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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The band that was too scary to take Nirvana's place. Well, sort of. The funny thing is, Alice In Chains were from Seattle, but they were hardly an essential part of the punk-influenced "grunge" scene, bent on overthrowing the cheesy influences of late Eighties metal and replacing them with, in the end, almost equally cheesy influences of pop hooks mixed with "original" Seventies' metal and Eighties' underground attitude. If anything, Alice In Chains were an offshoot of the late Eighties metal - and their earliest existence was as a glam metal band, with frontman Layne Staley wearing drag and more or less conforming to the Motley Crue side of things.

It's all the more amazing how this kind of band managed to eventually break out of the cliches of poodle metal and develop an identity all their own. Presumably it has to do with a bunch of various psychological factors, such as the presence of an unusually talented and subtle guitarist (Jerry Cantrell) and Layne Staley's drug obsession turned inwards rather than outwards if you know what I mean. Which basically meant that Alice In Chains preferred to follow in the footsteps of Metallica rather than Poison, but added a tremendous overdose of emotional power which was a perfect compensation for the lack of Metallica-like technical skills.

For sure, you can't say that anybody in the band was a virtuoso. They never had the defiant "keep it simple" attitude of yer average grunge band, and certainly had a much more diverse range of textures than Nirvana, but, unlike hair metal bands, Alice In Chains chose the emotional way of development over the technical way. Whether their music is cliched or not, from a strict musicological perspective, does not really matter; what matters is the band's dedication to conveying a clear and distinct message using primarily musical means, as opposed to scenic image (although their lyrics ain't half bad either).

In one way, Alice In Chains definitely managed to triumph over everyone. At their best, Alice In Chains are scary, and I don't mean the cheesy B-movie scariness of metallic bands from Black Sabbath to Slayer, nor do I mean the complex, "intellectual" scariness of classic Metallica. No, these guys were keen on taking heavy music and making it genuinely scary - using it as a backdrop for depicting real life problems, primarily drug use. In a way, Nirvana did a very similar thing, but Nirvana's scariness was flat-footed, blunt, a raw, primitive, sloppy, spontaneous attack upon the senses without any real understanding of why it was so scary in the first place, a rebel-without-a-cause rant. Here, the cause is all too obvious, and the message is all too clear. And the almost mathematical precision with which Cantrell plays every note is impeccable: when the band is at their best, there ain't one meaningless second in what they play, one wasted chord.

It's an attack on the senses, too, heavy as fuck, ruthless and mercyless, and amazingly tasteful. There was a time when I honestly did not believe that heavy metal, in any of its forms, could be scary - that it was way too blunt and clumsy a form of music to convey real fear, unless you're a young unsuspecting teen and suddenly encounter a Slayer tune for the first time in your life. Alice In Chains proved me wrong. Essentially what they did was a very simple thing: take metal (and their music was metal - fuck all those "grunge" taglines) and deliver it from the fantasy world as well as from the macho cock rock world. Yes, before Alice In Chains, there were two types of metal bands: cartoonish pocketbook fantasy ones, from Black Sabbath to Iron Maiden, and sexist, posturing, we-take-over-the-universe ones, from Judas Priest to Poison. Note that I'm grossly oversimplifying here, but that's just to show how much of a really new force in music these guys were. Technically, they never invented anything. Attitude-wise, they broke an important stereotype.

It's too bad the world never caught on that vibe. In their own country, Alice In Chains achieved a solid amount of popularity, with albums going gold and hit singles and MTV awards and stuff, but one never really knows if that was an independent achievement or whether they just rode the coattails of Nirvana's success, even if their debut album was somewhat more successful than Nirvana's debut. The rest of the world pretty much remained unimpressed. In the end, I suppose Alice In Chains simply had way less commercial appeal than Nirvana; they were creepier, wittier, and not nearly as much oriented on the "teen market". Too bad - in many ways, they were just as good as Nirvana, and in some ways, better.

Then again, how do you expect a band that has "DEATH" written on its collective brow to gain huge commercial success? All of their records are conceptual albums about death, and in a certain way, they're all parts of a large sculptural panorama, going through several different stages - and ending with Staley's tragic death of an overdose in April 2002. You could say Alice In Chains are a one-trick pony indeed, and whether they're grinding out their cruel, devastating electric riffs or switching to moody, atmospheric acoustic mode on their EPs, they're always bent on communicating to you the same old message, best expressed in short condensed attacks whose names speak for themselves: 'Them Bones' and 'We Die Young'. But as long as you're not hailing one-trick ponies as the best bands in the world, there's nothing wrong with being a one-trick pony if you're a skilled one-trick pony. Many bands sing and play about death; but if you were to ask me "show me the best band in the world to the music of which I could die painfully and excruciatingly", I would probably have to point out Alice In Chains, whether I want it or not. That, or Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

Lineup: Layne Staley - guitar, lead vocals; Jerry Cantrell - guitar, vocals; Michael Starr - bass guitar; Sean Kinney - drums. Starr quit, 1992, replaced by Mike Inez. Fairly simple story.



Year Of Release: 1990

Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

Hey, here's somebody who sure knows how to plant the True Spirit of Non-Cheesy Evil into a well-chosen guitar note.

Best song: WE DIE YOUNG

Track listing: 1) We Die Young; 2) Man In The Box; 3) Sea Of Sorrow; 4) Bleed The Freak; 5) I Can't Remember; 6) Love Hate Love; 7) It Ain't Like That; 8) Sunshine; 9) Put You Down; 10) Confusion; 11) I Know Somethin' ('Bout You); 12) Real Thing.

These guys have a great sound worked out from the very beginning, but the riff department kinda suffers. Cut this by twenty minutes and...

Oh wait! We're speaking of Alice In Chains, aren't we? Scrap that. A straightforward grunge album which tells of death, suffering, nightmares, pain, broken hearts, drug rehabilitation and other nice things like that, with incredibly heavy guitar tones, a lead singer who sings like he really knows what he's singing about, and minimal production. Surely this album must be judged on different standards than an album by, say, Judas Priest, with wimpier guitar tones, a lead singer who sings like he has had his brain surgically removed without too much suffering, and a glammy unsincere mood overall? (Nothing against Judas Priest, by the way - all these things often work towards their own advantage).

Not to me, it doesn't seem so. I simply don't think that Facelift contains that many great songs. The guitar tone is certainly great; Jerry Cantrell obviously spent a lot of time trying to get the darkest, grittiest sound of his instrument, and although he still can't beat Tony Iommi at that, he at least has the benefit of cleaner Nineties production. And Layne Staley has a nice set of chords, too, actually better than those of Kurt Cobain (or at least he doesn't bother to scream as much as Cobain does, thus giving the impression of having more of a range and suchlike - you know, there is something to be said for subtlety).

But a good half of this album is filler. Well, maybe a good third, the more I listen to it, but since it's so goddamn long, that third feels more like a half. If the overall mood clicks with you, you really won't mind this, because heavy metal had never been so violently depressive and nightmarish before (I am, of course, not mentioning the theatrical death metal scene here - these things are, like, for real). And yeah, fuck "grunge" - "grunge" is merely a term coined for those who didn't like the term "heavy metal", associating it with Iron Maiden and/or Motley Crue. Alice In Chains are metal. So is Nirvana. They just don't do the D&D thing, but so what?

Anyway, the fact is, Facelift is a good metal album, and a great way to headbang if you're one of 'em angsty guys who think Nirvana are way too soft for you. But the songs just aren't so good. They're all so deadly slow and so deadly similar and so deadly monotonous. I just don't understand how it is actually possible not to fall asleep when something like 'Love, Hate, Love' or 'Confusion' is rumbling in your speakers - heavy, yes, but almost lulling with its monotonousness. Now see, were this Black Sabbath with a six minute epic, they would be sure to make it multi-part, probably inserting a breakneck fast section in between the slow parts. But Alice In Chains don't need this: they know angsty teens will buy this stuff anyway. Not being an angsty teen, I want 'Love, Hate, Love' to go away in two minutes at most; were I one, I'd probably long for it to go on without end. That's marketin' for ya.

So there's the simple problem: too many songs, too many long songs, too little variety, too few truly kick-ass riffs of the "never-gonna-leave-you" kind. Remedy? CUT! Here is my perfect Facelift EP aiming for a rating at least a couple marks higher than that:

Start off with 'We Die Young', which might just be the perfect grunge song. When Staley growls 'take another hit, and bury your brother!', you can just hear the thump of the fainthearted ones losing conscience in the background. The riffage here approaches the intensity and savageness level of Metallica's 'For Whom The Bell Tolls' and at times surpasses it. This is the shit, man, this is your worst nightmare come to life, this is the kind of thing next to which Freddie Krueger looks like Mahatma Gandhi. What's most evil about it is the insane catchiness of it: several hours later, you'll suddenly find yourself singing the refrain as if it were 'Jingle Bells' or something, so make sure you're not in a public place.

The well-known single 'Man In The Box' has a cleverly syncopated riff, and the wah-wah adds a nice touch. 'Sea Of Sorrow' is the one six-minute tune that makes the other ones more or less redundant - it's notably faster and doesn't seem to drag so much. Plus, it actually has a catchy chorus - 'I live tomorrow, you I will not follow, as you wallow in a sea of sorrow!' Okay, okay, it sounds much less stupid within the song's context than it might look to you on paper. The guitar solo also rips on here. It would be topped on the following album with the even scarier 'Dam That River', but so far it's the most overwhelming epic on the album.

'Bleed The Freak' is also poised for inclusion, although it actually recreates the absolutely same vibe as 'We Die Young', down to the gritty guitar tone (exactly the same). Put 'It Ain't The Same' on the list, if only for featuring the best riff on the album - how does he get that massive vibrato so perfectly every time? 'Put You Down' is the fastest song on the album, with excellent funky playing technique that shows Alice In Chains did know other playing styles apart from the Iommi one; and likewise, 'I Know Somethin' ('Bout You)' is almost pure funk, and the most surprising cut on the album if there is, actually, anything surprising about it.

And that's it. Take these seven songs and leave the other five somewhere on the shelves for suicidal freaks and Goth girls. That'd make grunge's finest half hour, actually, tell you all you really need to know about the genre without having to buy any Nirvana at that. The interesting thing is that this album really came out a year before Nevermind did. But obviously, Alice In Chains are just way too friggin' "uncommercial" for people to associate grunge with them. Huh.



Year Of Release: 1992

Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 13

Wanna know? Not Satan himself could put together such an immaculately conceived package.


Track listing: 1) Them Bones; 2) Dam That River; 3) Rain When I Die; 4) Sickman; 5) Rooster; 6) Junkhead; 7) Dirt; 8) God Smack; 9) Hate To Feel; 10) Angry Chair; 11) Down In A Hole; 12) Would.

The best death metal album I've never heard anybody call a death metal album. What kind of a fucked-up world we're living in when people make a metal album about death and I have to call it "grunge"? Screw you, terminology-setters! Dirt will always be "death metal" for me, and not "death metal" because it features a Cookie Monster guy grunting about Satan's smelly breath, chopped entrails, and a disembowelled Messiah to a bunch of zillion-notes-per-second riffs that all sound the same, but "death metal" because it's truly one of the scariest, most authentically nightmarish records ever made.

In a way, it's even more monotonous than Facelift. There's no attempts at sounding funky, and most of the time it's just slow leaden metallic riffage with not a few direct Sabbath references (the title track more or less rips off 'Electric Funeral') and a couple direct Led Zeppelin references ('Hate To Feel' more or less rips off 'Dazed And Confused'). But these riffs are good! More than that - they're downright bloody creepy! Basically, the band just reaches an absolute peak in the art of songwriting, realizing it's not the heaviness itself that counts, but the things you do to that heaviness. Not a note is wasted on the best tracks - everything works towards the goal of getting you down and out. And in many respects, it's better than Sabbath, because you know these guys mean it. They're not doing it to garner a lot of press, positive or negative; they're doing it because they know what pain and suffering is, and they wanna teach you some of that pain and suffering so that you know what it is, too.

Taken together, Dirt is a concept album about the evils of drugged-out, addicted existence, showing all the delicacies of leading a piece-of-shit life when the needle is all you need for comfort. Considering that Staley was a hopeless addict by that time (weird, actually, that he still had as much as an entire decade of life before him), I think I haven't heard a piece of music that would make me abhor narcotics so much since at least 'Sister Morphine', and that was but one song. Dirt is just about the perfect combination of realistic horror and metallic catchiness you can have this side of Nevermind; the only reason why the second one was able to install itself as the ultimate grunge masterpiece in the heads of the general public and Dirt was not is that compared to Dirt, Nevermind sounds like Herman's Hermits in terms of "safety" and "inoffensiveness". (It's hardly any worse in terms of general memorability, though).

'I believe them bones are me, some say we're born into the grave; I've been so alone, gonna end up a big ol' pile o' them bones', is the immediate greeting - made twice as shivery by the fact it's actually a hummable refrain. It's hummable, I mean, it sticks in your head, you wanna sing it on an unconscious level, and these guys don't pull no punches about it. Don't exaggerate or ridicule it either - I mean, yeah, it's what you feel when you're depressed. Don't you? The cheery introduction being made, we move along to the evil, evil, totally devastating 'Dam That River', a song about addiction and the impossibility to get away from it: 'oh you couldn't dam that river and maybe I don't give a damn anyway'... God that's one hell of a bleek vision, and they pick just the right mold of "Sabbath meets Metallica" guitar melody to suit the lyrics. Why don't all these anti-narcotic people stick this thing in all the cheesy anti-drug ads on TV? Afraid to scare the public's asses off? I can't imagine anybody becoming an addict after hearing something like this - coming from an addict.

And that's just the first two songs. The first two thirds of the album just don't let go of you, hammering one terrifying, merciless hook into your head after another. 'Rain When I Die' is slower, yet just as ferocious, with a head-rattling double-tracked wah-wah riff and easily the most nihilistic, most exasperating yell out of Staley's tired throat - 'I think it's gonna raaaaaaaain! When I diiieeee!'. Perhaps the defining moment of this record is when Cantrell, after torturing you for about a minute with blasts of feedback, screechy paranoid half-riffs, and grimy "motorcycle effects", finally rips into the main theme - and its compact, well-constructed evilness actually surpasses the ravenous introduction, pushing you even further back against the wall. It's like, "oh no, how far can these guys actually go?"

'Sickman' is the band's direct take on 'Sister Morphine', only louder, faster, more kick-ass, totally devastating in its thrash-derived (but slower, so you can taste every eerie note) attack. 'Rooster' is Staley trying to fight this devastation, culminating in a fiersome 'you know he ain't gonna die!' howl (actually, the song was written by Cantrell about his dad's Vietnam experience, but hey, you're not supposed to know that - thanks to those who did tell me anyway!). A slow, moody, six-minute metal ballad - amazingly, not boring for one second. 'Junkhead' is the one which has 'What's my drug of choice? - Well what have you got?' in the chorus... no further comments necessary.

Naturally, it would take a bunch of superheroes to pull off a fifty-seven minute album like that, with songs that all deal with the same set of topics and the same sonic patterns and which would all rule - personally, I get a bit tired by the end, so I couldn't really say if the final two songs suck or if I'm just so tired of the atmosphere I don't get eaten up by more of the same kind of hooks. But I don't give a friggin' damn anyway. Did I mention 'God Smack' yet? I didn't? What have I been doing? Oh, I've been discusssing all the other good songs, I see. Well all right. 'God Smack' has a totally monumental wah-wah attack going on there in the chorus, so "stick your arm for some real fun"! Plus Staley puts that electronic encoding over his voice which would probably be a stupid gimmick if it were spread all over the album, but works admirably in the context of this tune.

Get this metal masterpiece today if you're even barely interested what the whole fuss about Alice In Chains is about. Also, I normally don't give out separate reviews to short EPs of material, so you'll be interested to know that Dirt was preceded by a short four-song EP (with a fifth 'hidden' bonus track which is just the guys goofing off) called Sap, pretty unusual for Alice In Chains in that all the songs were acoustic-based - but, of course, just as dreary and depressing as the electric based ones. They're pretty good but nothing compared to the mammoth pounding of Dirt. Someday I hope they'll just be tacked on as bonus tracks.



Year Of Release: 1994

Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

The "acoumystical" side of the band is not really my cup of tea, but that's not to say it doesn't deserve attention.


Track listing: 1) Rotten Apple; 2) Nutshell; 3) I Stay Away; 4) No Excuses; 5) Whale & Wasp; 6) Don't Follow; 7) Swing On This.

Technically, it's also an EP, but at least it's much longer than Sap, and I would say what's necessary to do is to put them both on one CD and sell it at regular price. Better still, issue a double CD with all of the band's 1990-94 output in interspersed order, which would prevent the listener from getting too worn out, whether it be through endless metallic riffage or endless menacing acoustic strumming. On the other hand, let's be fair to history.

Actually, the rating could be higher here had this record been a little longer. As it is, the vibe I get from these guys on here is good, but not quite of the same power that I get from Dirt - and considering that I directly don't care much for at least a couple of these songs, well, the ensuing calculations would lead you somewhere around the 10 mark, too. But that doesn't matter, really. Numbers only matter if you're doing divination in traditional China, or if you work for the Billboard charts, which are more or less the same thing if you look at 'em from an appropriate angle. What matters is that Alice In Chains set out to prove they're not limited by their successful, but monotonous, metallic formula, and that they can do something radically different if asked to. Or even if not asked to.

Can they? Well... in a way, yes, and in a way, no. It's one thing to get Jerry Cantrell to play mostly acoustic-based melodies (but don't worry, there's plenty of ass-kicking electric lead guitar workouts here as well), it's another thing to make them outstanding. I am mostly speaking of the substandard folk/country sendup 'Don't Follow', replete with honky harmonica solos and "I was born a ramblin' man" type of lyrics. I have no problem with Cantrell and Staley showing us their sentimental, vulnerable side, but face it, had the song been recorded by the Eagles, no-one would have noticed the difference. Plus, each time Staley repeats 'Take me home', my subconscious wants to add 'country roads', and you'll understand me if I say that this association has no place on an Alice In Chains album.

They achieve better results with the jazzy 'Swing On This', mainly because the immediate mood, set by the thumpin' bassline, fits the band much better, and the disturbing "nasal" riff that introduces the chorus could easily fit on Dirt. The song's simply more memorable, and manages to go beyond a simple demonstration of capacities, where 'Don't Follow' was basically just saying: "Look, we can play like 'em guys at Nashville, we're not just a bunch of stinky Seattle nogoodniks!'.

That said, the one absolute classic from this album is, and - in my mind - will always be, the opening track. 'Rotten Apple' is a seven-minute mammoth of almost Biblical status (and the "apple" referred should, of course, be interpreted as the apple from which Adam and Eve each took a bite: "eat of the apple, so young/I'm crawling back to start"), taking a very long time to develop and then an equally long time to furl back again, but that don't really matter. The sad, bitter guitars and the crunchy talkbox effect remind me of Pink Floyd, but this one boasts a certain sense of immediacy and closeness that you can really feel right before you - unlike the Floyd Deity which will always seem to be floating somewhere high high above your head, the Spirit of Alice In Chains sucks the life out of you before your very eyes. Yet they, too, succeed in building up a dreamy, ethereal atmosphere, as well as setting up a befuddling moral conundrum - 'innocence is over, ignorance is spoken, confidence is broken, sustenance is stolen'.

In short, life sucks as usual. 'Nutshell' is a bit too vague and spacey for me to say anything deeply positive about it, but when they pick a little steam on songs like 'I Stay Away' and 'No Excuses', my hopes definitely soar up again. A particularly touching bit of inspiration is the use of "angelic" strings on 'I Stay Away', real Vivaldi-style strings that are used very sparingly but to great effect. And then there's the short atmospheric instrumental 'Whale & Wasp', with still more strings and a little bit of moody minimalistic electric guitar from Jerry. Sparing is the word here - there's no technique-flashing or anything, each note is selected as carefully as it was with the heavy stuff on Dirt. It's actually a source of problems, too, because that's the exact thing I used to criticize Pink Floyd for, too, and the calculatedness of these songs sometimes annoys me, not to mention these guys aren't Floyd, after all. Let's see, do we really need that minute-long acoustic intro on 'Nutshell'? It's carefully and meticulously laid down, but it just ain't all that interesting. Any of 'em guys knowing how to pick the acoustic could have done it, and with the exact same chord sequences, too.

Well, anyway, throw on a point if you're not bothered by the shortness of it all or if, for some reason, you think 'Don't Follow' is the best country ballad ever recorded. Overall, a nicely done, meaningful little EP with one great song, three very good ones, one so-so one, one forgettable one, and one okay instrumental. How does that look in numerical terms? Is it worth seven dollars and ninety-nine cents for you? And don't forget the sales tax!



Year Of Release: 1995

Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

This one's depressing rather than frightening, but they have studied that emotion well, too.

Best song: FROGS

Track listing: 1) Grind; 2) Brush Away; 3) Sludge Factory; 4) Heaven Beside You; 5) Head Creeps; 6) Again; 7) Shame In You; 8) God Am; 9) So Close; 10) Nothin' Song; 11) Frogs; 12) Over Now.

In order for me to write an inspired, convincing review of this album, I have to refrain from sleeping for forty-eight hours, drink a couple of gallons of vodka without any food, turn the lights down low so there's nothing around but the dim, murky glow of the computer screen, and tie a 20-pound iron ball to each of my fingers. Gee, I hope they didn't use a real dog on that album cover, but what fascinates me the most about it is not the lack of a leg, rather the look in its eyes. No better way to summarize this record.

It's long, it is, and draggy, and grey and lifeless, but that's the goddamn point. It's Dirt without the energy - but with all of its creativity. It's the post-agonizing stage, when the acute pain and suffering is already over and you don't have the forces to suffer any more; you're just sort of lying there and groaning, unable to lift one finger, not even waiting for death any more because you just don't fuckin' care. And the eerie thing about it is that it was the band's last studio album, and was followed by Staley's actual death less than a decade later. Thus Alice In Chains run their natural course: from the ominous (Facelift) to the ravenous (Dirt) to the comatose (this one).

Yet that's just the mood, and no Alice In Chains record is driven entirely by mood, or they would basically be no better than your average grunge outfit in the neighbourhood. All of the twelve songs on here are based on melodies and hooks, and they're all good. If you're looking for sharp sensations, don't. Cantrell intentionally avoids repeating the sludgy bombast of Dirt, and not a single one of these tunes bashes you over the head as relentlessly as 'Dam That River'; instead, they go into the direction suggested by the "softer" material on Dirt, like its closing numbers. These songs, whether they're "rockers" or "ballads", sound blunt and muffled, but the riffs and catchy vocal melodies are still there.

Once the opening number, 'Grind', hits your speakers, it vaguely sounds like the Alice of old, but something has changed, hasn't it? There might be a little less distortion than you'd expect, or the tempo might be a bit slower, or maybe the riff itself is not as brutal as it used to be. Or maybe it's just that the song is entirely written as if from the point of view of a nasty smelling, half-rotten cadaver. I can almost smell that rot emanating from the howling guitar in my left speaker, as well as from the effects on Staley's voice. At the same time, the chorus ('let the sun never blind your eyes...') seems like it was taken directly from some shiny happy-dappy art-rock epic of the early Seventies - and set to this gruesome, dark, threatening music. In other words, the character of Alice In Chains is still showing!

I don't know why, but my favourite track on here is the longest "epic" one, 'Frogs' (why 'Frogs'? Is the protagonist in the first part of the song a frog, seeing the world with its 'wide brown eyes'? Ah well...). And not because of the main melody, which could be more involving, but rather because of the lengthy closing section, the one where Jerry repeats the bunch of bleeding, ugly-as-hell riffs as Staley blabbers the disconnected delirious lines in the background. This is SO much of a soundtrack to a slow, painful, torturous death it creeps me out under certain conditions (lights out, headphones on, you know the score). The crucial point comes when through all the blabber distinctly comes "don't... fuck... with me again..." - the dying man's last gasps of conscious struggle with whatever odds there may be. No, it's not much of a song as such, but it certainly offers a perspective on death quite distinct from Floyd's 'Great Gig In The Sky', if you know what I mean.

Actually, the ballads are pretty damn good, too. 'Heaven Beside You' was the hit, wasn't it? It's a really cool, really atmospheric, and really melodic acoustic-based ballad that builds upon the Sap/Jar Of Flies legacy and throws in a first-rate poppy, almost Beatles-like, vocal hook - funny, in a way you could argue it's the closest they ever came to sounding like their Nirvana brethren, but I don't care. Both bands were excellent in different ways, but if there is a stylistic merger from time to time, is there a problem with that? I also dig the hell out of 'Shame In You', which really sounds not unlike an early "genteel" Pink Floyd ballad with a bit more distortion thrown in according to the laws of the Nineties. It's also the rare case of a song where the vocal melody in the verses might be more interesting than the chorus - those descending 'when I waken, and I'm achin', time for sleepin'...' lines, in my eyes, form the real meat of the song, and offer a gulp of gentleness and sentimentality that's sorely needed in among all the pain.

All of which shouldn't make you forget the straightahead rockers: from my description you could draw the conclusion that they have become a bunch of lethargic sissies or something, but that's all but true. "Smoothing down" the riffs and toning down the energy doesn't mean none of the songs have kickass potential. 'Again' is a total stunner, for instance, especially in the "post-chorus" section when a 'ridiculous' post-'Sympathy For The Devil' set of backing voices chants 'whoo-hoo, whoo-hoo' in one channel and Staley lets rip with the barely audible 'again... again... again... again...' in the other - an effect quite unlike anything you've heard previously. 'Head Creeps' is long, funky, and cool; 'God Am' is short, creepy, and minimalistic; and so on and so on and so on.

Essentially, a couple tracks like 'Sludge Factory' could be shorter, I guess, but I don't complain much about the unnecessary length, because it sort of fits in with what I find to be the album's conception: "Observations From Your Deathbed". When compared on a song-by-song basis to Dirt, some of the melodies would obviously lose, but that only basically means this one's the second best Alice In Chains record, not the first one. Highly recommended, from a grunge/metal band whose only three full-fledged records sound very much alike yet essentially different from each other. And a three-legged dog on the cover. Mean Alice In Chains fans call the album Tripod because of that, or so I've heard.



Year Of Release: 1996

Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

Well, it's not too different from what they were doing on their EPs, is it?

Best song: ROOSTER

Track listing: 1) Nutshell; 2) Brother; 3) No Excuses; 4) Sludge Factory; 5) Down In A Hole; 6) Angry Chair; 7) Rooster; 8) Got Me Wrong; 9) Heaven Beside You; 10) Would; 11) Frogs; 12) Over Now; 13) Killer Is Me.

Pretty much the band's musical testament, I guess. Unplugged shows are usually detested by "selective" audiences, and occasionally for good reason - but for all of their crassness, this particular show doesn't exactly strike me as a purely commercial, publicity-dedicated event. Mostly it has to do with the fact that Alice In Chains already had a thing for doing "unplugged" material earlier in their career, and this MTV show thus feels like a natural continuation of the Sap/Jar Of Flies vibe. So there's some extra people sitting around and cheering and clapping, so who really cares? There ain't that much of 'em anyway.

If anything, I was disappointed with the setlist. Many of the songs performed here were acoustic in the first place, taken from the very same two EPs, and do not offer any different perspective. And the other material, for the most part, belongs in the "ballad-oriented" category. I was really curious if they would perform, say, 'Dam That River', or at least 'We Die Young', in an acoustic version - now that would be a real hoot! But no, they wouldn't. Maybe they're right, maybe they just totally wouldn't work in softer arrangements, but wouldn't it have been fun to try? Shame on you guys for going by the safe road!

Still, the performance is pretty strong overall. They don't offer too many distractions; a couple of jokes from time to time to alleviate the overall morose mood of the event, and one of the songs begins with a faux-'Enter Sandman' introduction as a "tribute" to their forefathers. Other than that, it's straightahead gloominess. The performance isn't fully unplugged, as they're still using the electric bass, but they don't follow the "Great Springsteen Rebellion" either, never switching to electric guitar. This can certainly make the proceedings look boring to a lot of people, but it's essentially a question of whether you're ready to fall for the mood or not. Cuz mood is keyword here, baby! Stripped of their "power" aspect, Alice In Chains capitalize on the "depression" aspect like never before, this time over the course of a seventy-minute-long album instead of a short EP.

And I dunno, I like it. I probably wouldn't like it if it was just mood, but Alice In Chains are a melodic band, after all, and they mostly do good songs on here, although 'Sludge Factory' hardly really works when transposed into an acoustic set, and neither does 'Frogs'. The rest of the songs are... well, not exactly better than the originals, of course, but hardly that much worse, either. I mean, I, for one, like it when they do that main riff of 'Over Now' with an acoustic guitar; it gives the song a very different look, yet never detracts from the catchiness. Actually, material from the self-titled album probably works better here than any of the Dirt/Facelift songs would - that sludgy, "lethargic" brand of metal translates better to a pure acoustic arrangement than the relentless grind of the early stuff. Note how they do nothing from Facelift, their most consistently "heavy" record? Yep.

Speaking of acoustic performances, it's often been said that no matter how great you are on electric, your true skill only comes out when you switch to a "natural" environment, and Alice In Chains are no exceptions. Once again, Cantrell shows the same thing he's been proving to us for half a decade now: he's no virtuoso, but he assumes full responsibility for every friggin' note he plays. Every note is meaningful and emotional, including the short instrumental breaks, which never stun you through flashiness - he often plays very short, minimalistic note sequences which you could probably master in a matter of seconds (like on 'Heaven Beside You', for instance), but could probably never come up with. And where there were huge climactic transgressions from "soft-and-quiet" to "loud-and-jarring" earlier, like on 'Rooster', he's able to somehow preserve the dynamics by toying with loudness and appropriate changes in chord sequences.

I also like that one little trick he uses (or is that Staley playing? there are two guitars out here, aren't there?) where he makes the string vibrate in a very weird, unsettling way, sort of like it "rattles" along (forgive me for not being technical enough, but hey, the less guitar players there are in this world, the easier it gets for those who do play guitars, doesn't it?) - sure it ain't the equal of distortion/fuzz, but it works as their equal in mood in an acoustic setting.

So basically, I understand people who dismiss this thing as unnecessary, but I say, it's good to have it around. It's not an extra dead weight to the catalog: on the contrary, remember, every AIC electric album had its acoustic counterpart, and in a bizarre twist of fortune, Unplugged is the acoustic counterpart to the self-titled album: just as lethargic, grim, desperate, and "post-agonizing", only done without electric guitars. Nobody's asking you to love it, but if Alice In Chains as a band is an architectural construction, then Unplugged is that last brick in the walls which nobody really cares about, but without which it wouldn't be a completed building anyway.

Oh yeah, there's a new song on here too, performed at the very end - appropriately titled 'Killer Is Me'. It pales in comparison to the better stuff on here, but I guess if it were present on Jar Of Flies, no fan would object to that all that much. As it is, fans are obliged to get the record anyway, for one new song at least.


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