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Alice In Chains

+ {Mad Season} + {Jerry Cantrell}

Although not as prominent or as global as the mighty NIRVANA, PEARL JAM and SOUNDGARDEN (but only just), gloomy grunge-meisters ALICE IN CHAINS have had a couple of bites at the mainstream cherry: one with the doomed frontman Layne Staley (who O.D.’d in April 2002) and a second with former Comes With The Fall substitution, William DuVall. As effective as they ever were back in the early 90s, two decades on AIC are still at the core of the effervescent metal scene.
Formed 1987 in Seattle, Washington, Alice N’ Chains – as they were then monikered – evolved from Layne Staley’s high school group, Sleze, although when the likeminded axeman Jerry Cantrell shared studio space with the said singer, both gelled with the idea of bringing in Jerry’s band buddies Mike Starr (bass) and Sean Kinney (drums). Based at the rehearsal rooms at Washington’s Music Bank, the 4-piece would also play gigs under the glamster moniker of Diamond Lie, before finally settling with the slightly altered original name, ALICE IN CHAINS – despite Layne’s mother’s concerns of its bondage connotations.
Impressed by the group at a local gig, promoter Randy Hauser financed demo recordings (“The Treehouse Tapes”), which were duly submitted to SOUNDGARDEN managers Kelly Curtis and Susan Silver, and, in turn, talent scout Nick Terzo. The latter’s association with Columbia Records led to their signing and, eventually, the release (in the summer of 1990) of their promo-only cassette/cd EP, `We Die Young’. Demand for the track led to the issue of parent debut album, FACELIFT (1990) {*7}, a Dave Jerden-produced record that commanded widespread favourable reviews, although it took some time to bury itself inside the Billboard charts. At a time when NIRVANA and PEARL JAM were yet to make their mark, ALICE IN CHAINS (on the back of SOUNDGARDEN’s “Louder Than Love” – No.108 a year earlier) were the first grunge act to crack the Top 50.
An MTV video boost under their belt for attendant single, `Man In The Box’, ALICE IN CHAINS enjoyed a flurry of activity in ’92, both with the release of the part-acoustic-led `Sap’ EP and the Top 10 follow-up album, DIRT {*8}; the latter also breaking the band in Britain. During the following year, the ace group lifted no less than four relatively major UK hits (`Would?’, `Them Bones’, `Angry Chair’ and `Down In A Hole’) from this critically-acclaimed opus; Starr had now made way for Mike Inez. Split between these Cantrell-penned dirges, Staley’s added confessionals were strewn from the numbing effects of his heroin addiction, but of his co-contributions, `Junkhead’, `God Smack’, `Sickman’, `Rain When I Die’ and the title track, were the most harrowing and, indeed, poignant.
With acoustic sets all the rage, AIC then delivered a stripped-down mini-set, JAR OF FLIES (1994) {*7}, the record being the first of its type to top the US charts. Released in Britain with bonus tracks from `Sap’, its bleak, ballad-y approach was the calm before the storm; from the opening `Rotten Apple’ to the almost upbeat `Swing On This’, the group looked to be branching out.
The last giant grunge supergroup had been the PEARL JAM/SOUNDGARDEN combination of TEMPLE OF THE DOG (way back in 1990), and while PJ’s Mike McCready had not been a full-time member of this combo, it was he that instigated The Gacy Bunch. Along with singer Staley, bassist John Baker Saunders (from the Lamont Cranston Band), other rehab-frequenting substance-abusers, the trio rounded off the jam session act with SCREAMING TREES’ drummer Barrett Martin. Initially named to collate serial killer John Wayne Gacy and the Brady Bunch, a healthier decision to re-moniker the quartet as MAD SEASON was well advised.
Fitting in studio time between main projects was helped along by PEARL JAM’s sound engineer-turned-co-producer Brett Eliason, the resultant ABOVE (1995) {*7} proving that the bunch could bypass grunge for sludge. While MARK LANEGAN filled-in when the pained Staley was “out-to-lunch” (he would subsequently take his place post-set), fans’ faves were arguably detached dirges `Wake Up’, `River Of Deceit’, `I Don’t Know Anything’ and `I’m Above’. Note too, that the deluxe-CD (released in 2013) added shelved tracks from their subsequently shelved album from ‘97. Sadly, the MAD SEASON came to an abrupt end when Saunders died in January 1999.
Speculation was put to bed about an AIC split when Staley, Cantrell, Inez and Kinney reunited for the eponymous ALICE IN CHAINS (1995) {*6} double-set; the record giving the group their second No.1. Boasting a couple of UK-only chart entries, `Grind’ and the ballad `Heaven Beside You’, the miserabilist defiance continued unabated on `Brush Away’ and epic pieces: `Sludge Factory’, `Frogs’ and `Over Now’.
The obligatory UNPLUGGED {*5} set followed in ‘96, ALICE IN CHAINS being only one of a handful of similar acts to be bestowed with such a badge of honour. Considering they’d avoided touring for three years, this memento of their MTV gig that spring was a tight, acoustic affair that basically pulled together a “best-of” with NIRVANA-meets-MEAT PUPPETS-like surprises.
With AIC out of action for a few years, guitar/composer JERRY CANTRELL decided it was his time for an outsider project. The solo BOGGY DEPOT (1998) {*5} – a Toby Wright-produced record which included the track `Leave Me Alone’ from the earlier cut, Jim Carrey film, The Cable Guy – hit the Top 30 for a week but failed miserably to gain much interest in Britain, bar Kerrang! of course. Roping in Kinney and Inez, plus Les Claypool (of PRIMUS), bassist Rex Brown (of PANTERA) and FISHBONE alumni, CANTRELL the singer was found wanting. Whether Staley in his heyday could’ve saved songs like `Cut You In’, `Breaks My Back’ and `Cold Piece’ (the album’s better songs), was questionable, but at a time when grunge was at a low, this “Boggy” effort was pants for many drifting fans.
ALICE IN CHAINS still on hold (now six years) while Staley deteriorated into a life of reclusive drug taking, CANTRELL set about recording his sophomore set. Naming it DEGRADATION TRIP (2002) {*7}, the record fared somewhat better than his previous effort and, with the help from some top-notch backing on session (bassist Robert Trujillo, guitarist Chris DeGarmo and drummer Mike Bordin), the album peaked in the Top 40; pick of the bunch: `Psychotic Break’, sludge-fest `Bargain Basement Howard Hughes’ and his most delicate of pieces, `Gone’. The set would be released by Roadrunner a few months after the untimely – but nevertheless expected – O.D. of Staley, found around a fortnight after his presumed death on April 5, 2002; the anniversary, incidentally, of the passing of Kurt Cobain.
ALICE IN CHAINS were always threatening to re-form, it was just that they couldn’t settle with the right singer. Sure, DAMAGEPLAN refugee Pat Lachman (on a benefit show in 2005) was effective enough, but he and others didn’t fit the bill. With William DuVall in the hot seat, the group’s comeback set had higher expectations than usual. For BLACK GIVES WAY TO BLUE (2009) {*7}, ALICE IN CHAINS found themselves back in the Top 5, a splendid achievement considering their lengthy hiatus – 13 unlucky years – away from the limelight. Dark, murky and hostile, Cantrell’s songs – `Check My Brain’, `A Looking In View’ and soft touch `Your Decision’, among the best – played their Houdini trump card with their usual poker faces.
Claustrophobic follow-up, THE DEVIL PUT DINOSAURS HERE (2013) {*7}, chugged and churned like grunge had never lost touch with its once expansive listeners. Top 3 (Top 30 in Britain again) `Pretty Done’, `Scalpel’, `Phantom Limb’ and `Lab Monkey’ excavate the Devil’s best tunes from source, while DuVall’s gloom-addled vox recall the AIC of old – and, dare one say it – recalling heroin’s umpteenth victim: the sadly-missed Layne Staley; note too, that former member Mike Starr was also a drug casualty in March 2011.
To many journos and wrinkling retainers, hard-rock grunge had passed with the death of Kurt Cobain. Not so ALICE IN CHAINS incarnate, whom, by way of 2018’s transatlantic Top 20 set, RAINIER FOG {*8}, were nihilistically miserabilist enough to turn over the egg-timer. Somehow, somewhere it worked for the most part; skull-splitters `The One You Know’, the title track and the soft-ish `Enough’, enough angst-rock ammunition to keep the 40-something kids menacingly melancholy (i.e. happy).
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD / rev-up MCS Sep2018

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