Pioneers of a genre: Alice in Chains

Alice in Chains is an American rock band formed in Seattle, Washington, in 1987 by guitarist, songwriter and co-lead vocalist Jerry Cantrell and drummer Sean Kinney, who then recruited bassist Mike Starr and lead singer Layne Staley. Although widely associated with grunge music, the band’s diverse sound incorporates heavy metal elements, and they prefer to be known that way.

Facelift was the band’s first album, released on August 21, 1990, and was not an instant success, selling under 40,000 copies in the first six months of release, until MTV added the goosebumps-inducing Man in the Box to regular daytime rotation. The single hit number 18 on the mainstream rock charts, and in six weeks Facelift sold 400,000 copies in the US. The album was a critical success, and is considered as one of the most important records in establishing an audience for grunge and alternative rock in an era of hard rock and heavy metal listeners.

Following their tour for the first album, Alice in Chains entered the studio to record demos for its next album, but ended up recording five acoustic songs instead. While in the studio, drummer Sean Kinney had a dream about “making an EP called Sap”. The band decided not to mess with fate, and on March 21, 1992, Alice in Chains released their second EP, Sap. The EP was released while Nirvana’s Nevermind was at the top of the Billboard 200 charts, resulting in a rising popularity of Seattle-based bands, and of the term ‘grunge music’.

In March 1992, the band returned to the studio. With new songs written primarily on the road, the material had an overall darker feel than Facelift, with six of the album’s thirteen songs dealing with the subject of addiction. On September 29, 1992, Alice in Chains released its second album, Dirt. The album peaked at number six on the Billboard 200 and since its release has been certified quadruple platinum by the RIAA, making Dirt the band’s highest selling album to date. The album was a critical success, with many considering it to be the band’s closest effort to a masterpiece. Dirt spawned five top 30 singles – the opening track of the album that also serves as a prophecy of self-destruction in Them Bones; Down in a Hole, an anthem of loss, revulsion, and depression that remained on the charts for nearly two years; Godsmack, which might have been the most average song ‘musically’ but became a fan favorite, so much so they inspired a band to name themselves after the song, with lyrics like – “What in God’s name have you done? / Stick your arm for some real fun”; the towering Angry Chair announcing the end of the story, and it’s a miserable ending – “Saw my reflection and cried / So little hope that I died.”; and the huge hit Rooster, the fourth single from the effort. Layne Staley’s haunting vocals combined with Jerry Cantrell’s masterful guitar work make the song a classic. Cantrell wrote the six-minute song about his Vietnam War-vet father, who was nicknamed “The Rooster.” The track shares the horrors of war that his father finally opened up about years later. It would go on to become the biggest song on the disc, peaking at No. 7 on the Mainstream Rock Chart. The final song on Dirt (B-side) is Would?. At the time of Dirt’s release, Would? felt tacked on, but over the last two decades, it has come to occupy that position well – it remains one of the best songs ever written by Alice In Chains, so it’s fitting to have it housed here, providing a conclusion to the band’s best album (by a wide margin), as well as one of the best albums of the ’90s. It’s also fitting because Would? was written for Mother Love Bone vocalist Andrew Wood, who died of a heroin overdose in 1990, and there’s probably no more apt punctuation for this tale of spiraling addiction than such a tribute.

Following Alice in Chains’ extensive 1993 world tour, Staley said the band “just wanted to go into the studio for a few days with our acoustic guitars and see what happened”. Fewer masterstrokes have been deemed as coincidences as this one, because as it turned out, the band really had to go and settle in the studio as they had been evicted from their property due to non-payment of rent. Lonely, bored and in a creative overdrive, the band went on to record yet another mega-successful, acoustic flavored EP, Jar of Flies, released on January 25, 1994. Written and recorded in one week, Jar of Flies debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, becoming the first ever EP—and first Alice in Chains release—to top the charts, to be overtaken only a decade later by the Linkin Park and Jay Z collaboration, Collision Course. A darkly gorgeous collection, Alice in Chains sound as hollowed and deathly as ever, with Cantrell’s Electric guitar taking the backstage to allow both of the vocalists’ hallowing wails to flourish and fly. Jar of Flies features Alice in Chains’ first number-one single on the Mainstream Rock charts, No Excuses. I Stay Away would climb to No. 10 on the Mainstream Rock chart, but did receive a Grammy nomination for Best Hard Rock Performance in 1995. I Stay Away is also notable for its video, which featured a puppet-led circus all shot using stop-motion animation. The clip was so beloved that the puppets from the video can now be found at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As for the Jar of Flies title, Staley revealed that it came from an experiment Cantrell conducted as a kid. He recalled, “They gave him two jars full of flies. One of the jars they overfed, the other jar they underfed. The one they overfed flourished for a while, then all the flies died from overpopulation. The one they underfed had most of the flies survive all year. I guess there’s a message in there somewhere. Evidently that experiment had a big impact on Jerry.”

On November 7, 1995, Columbia Records released the eponymous album, Alice in Chains, which debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 and has since been certified double platinum. Of the album’s four singles, Grind, Again, Over Now, and Heaven Beside You, three feature Cantrell on lead vocals. Regrettably, shortly after a show supporting the reunited original Kiss lineup on their 1996/97 Alive/Worldwide Tour, Staley was found unresponsive after he overdosed on heroin and was taken to the hospital. Although he recovered, the band was forced to go on hiatus.

Although Alice in Chains never officially disbanded, Staley became a recluse, rarely leaving his Seattle condominium following the death of his ex-fiancée Demri Parrott due to infective endocarditis. “Drugs worked for me for years”, Staley told Rolling Stone in 1996, “and now they’re turning against me… now I’m walking through hell”.

Unable to continue with new Alice in Chains material, Cantrell released his first solo album, Boggy Depot, in 1998, also featuring fellow band members Sean Kinney and Mike Inez. In 1998, Staley reunited with Alice in Chains to record two new songs, Get Born Again and Died. Originally intended for Cantrell’s second solo album, the songs were reworked by Alice in Chains and were released in the fall of 1999 on the box set, Music Bank. By 2002, Cantrell had finished work on his second solo album, Degradation Trip. Written in 1998, the album’s lyrical content focused heavily on what Cantrell regarded as the demise of Alice in Chains, which still remained evident as the album approached its June 2002 release.

After a decade of battling drug addiction, Layne Staley was found dead in his condominium on April 19, 2002, two weeks after his actual death. His mother and stepfather became alarmed when accountants noticed that money was no longer being withdrawn from his accounts. With assistance from the police, they broke into his condo and made the discovery. An autopsy revealed Staley had died from overdose of a mixture of heroin and cocaine. His friends speculate that in addition to drugs, he may have contracted an illness that his body could not fight off, due to a compromised immune system. Cantrell dedicated his 2002 solo album, released two months after Staley’s death, to his memory.

Since then, Alice in Chains have recruited William DuVall and have released two albums, Black Gives Way to Blue (2009) and The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here (2013) to mixed reactions, thanks to variable acceptance by fans to a new frontman, and have lost another band member in the form of Mike Starr.