Alice In Chains: to Live and to Die in Seattle

Alice in Chains is among the protagonists of the hard-rock revival of the 90s, and a fundamental part of the grunge hurricane, the band led by Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell has challenged and met death several times. Until the inevitable dissolution and the unexpected second life.

Alice In Chains was one of the most influential bands of the 90s. They created a very special sound made of metallic guitars and alienating vocal melodies, destined to be picked up by a large group of bands in the following years. All of whom, however, will lack some fundamental qualities: sincerity in putting real and profound ailments into music, a superfine compositional taste like that of Jerry Cantrell, and, above all, a unique and unforgettable voice like that of Layne Staley. There are those who argue that Alice In Chains was able to ride the wave of grunge fashion, but in hindsight, it is all because of the authenticity and grandeur of their talent.

The Beginning

The group was formed in Seattle in 1987, from the merger of two street-glam metal bands: Alice ‘N Chains and Diamond Lie, the former led by singer Layne Staley, the latter by guitarist Jerry Cantrell. When Staley joins the Cantrell combo, along with bassist Mike Starr and drummer Sean Kinney, the new band begins to swerve slowly, evolving their sound from the typical hard-glam of those years to something different, remaining at the moment on the sidelines. of the “new wave” that is making Seattle a creative pole on the verge of exploding on a global scale.

If in that period Nirvana moved on coordinates close to hardcore-punk, if Soundgarden travel between Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, if Mudhoney are hardcore purists, Alice In Chains create a style linked to the canons of metal more mainstream, exasperating the claustrophobic side, slowing down the beats, making the tones very somber, almost referring to the “dark” tradition. The group models their sound on the Luciferian characteristics of Staley’s voice, able to amaze even without having an unusual extension or a particularly accurate technique.


After the recording (with Rick Parashar, the producer of “Ten”) of some demos, in August 1990 they made their debut with the album Facelift, on Columbia, immediately a major. This fact demonstrates the attention with which the record industry kept an eye on Seattle’s indie scene, which would explode the following year thanks to “Nevermind”.

“Facelift” is a not quite mature album, which alternates exciting moments with others – mostly in the second half – definitely superfluous, when not bordering on embarrassing. “Put You Down” or the funky “I Know Something About You”, which are episodes still linked to certain clichés of the previous decade, destined not to be followed up. The list of memorable songs is however already remarkable, starting from the portentous one-two opening: the powerful, short and incisive “We Die Young” – sadly foreboding title and already published in a promo Ep published a month earlier – and the syncopated and epic “Man In The Box”. Monolithic rock and steamroller, in no uncertain terms.

The guidelines of the Alice In Chains sound are only sketchy but already evident: Cantrell’s guitar full-bodied, red-hot and always in the foreground, and the voice of Staley (in this first album in the height of his youthful vehemence, still not perfectly focused in terms of expressiveness, but capable of very powerful vocalizations) to trace hallucinated melodies or to scream outbursts of anger. “I’m a man in the box / buried in my pit / won’t you come and save me?”, Is Layne’s desperate request for help, who hides the nature of a boy behind the mask; sensitive and unable to adapt to the world.

Proof of this is also the attitude once off the stage, when, in open contrast to the gloom of his music, he turns into a real goliard, and after all, all four elements of the group have always been animated by a strong ironic streak out of the scene.
Layne thus begins to impersonate the mask of the sad turn-of-the-century clown. It is in this period when success hits the group and the pressure on the four boys in their early twenties becomes massive, that hard drugs come into play, which will leave an indelible mark on the most emotionally vulnerable, Staley.

Love, Hate, Love

Returning to the music, it is necessary to mention at least one other episode of Facelift, the long, dreamlike, very heavy “Love, Hate, Love”, in which, on a time close to stasis, a sinister arpeggio and a funereal “cantata” tell words of disconsolation, loneliness, and anger, exploding at the end in a scream that instead of being liberating implodes in itself, leaving a sense of mortal anguish.

The power of Staley’s voice is impressive here, the harmony played on semitones fully conveys the sense of despair. The poetry of Alice In Chains is brought into sharp focus and is based in equal parts on the funereal gloom of an Ian Curtis and the raging power of Black Sabbath, blending metal, dark, rock, and a sick pop streak.


Despite its flaws, Facelift achieved good success, becoming the first album of the Seattle scene to go gold, eventually selling over two million copies in the United States alone. Alice In Chains tour with Iggy Pop, Van Halen, Poison, and Extreme, increasing their popularity. To strike while the iron is hot, the group produces an Ep in February 1992, but instead of giving life to a work based on the lines of what has just been produced, Cantrell and his associates opt for four acoustic, folkloric, meager songs. Sap combines a certain taste for the grotesque with a love for melodies, and without being able to define itself as a masterpiece it is an enjoyable EP.

SAP opens with “Brother”, a psychedelic dirge in which the voices of Staley and Cantrell (who begin to support the vocalist more and more often in the sung parts, making the vocal harmonies a real trademark of their sound) oriental arabesque. “Got Me Wrong” is a slow acoustic funk with a shouted chorus, the divertissement “Right Turn”, credited to the improbable “Alice Mudgarden”, hides the amused vocal cameos of Chris Cornell (Soundgarden) and Mark Arm (Mudhoney), the ghostly “Am I Inside” is a song for male voice, female voice (Ann Wilson, from Heart) and arpeggiated guitar.

In 1992 Alice In Chains appeared in Cameron Crowe’s “Singles”, a passionate Seattle postcard of the period. The band plays themselves playing live in a club and contributes “Would?” – one of their most successful tracks – to the soundtrack of the film. The “Would?” will be honored at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards in the “Best Video from a Film” category.

Dirt: The Masterpiece

Meanwhile, Nirvana has become Nirvana and Seattle the fulcrum of world music: it’s time to reap the fruits of what has been sown, and Alice gives birth to their masterpiece, immersed in gloom and anguish such that only the hype of those years has been able to make it a success of millions of copies. It is just in time to press the play button that a wall of guitars and an anguished scream strike the listener, grabbing him by the throat and throwing him into an abyss of decadent, morbid metallicity, of unprecedented psychological and sound violence. The suffering and the shocked hymn “Them Bones”, two minutes and thirty seconds of lucid despair, opens the best-selling work of Alice In Chains, Dirt, released on September 29, 1992. Huge and red-hot guitars, the perfect balance between clean sound and power, odd time in 7/8, and a voice that personifies the cry of a desperate generation, the song of a man abandoned at the mercy of ghosts that have become reality. “I believe / them bones are me” attacks Staley with the nasal and Luciferian chant, combined with the more traditional Cantrell one, vocal plots that could have been conceived by the Beatles.

Dirt gives no respite: suddenly closed, almost folding in on itself, the first track explodes the square and violent rock of “Dam That River”, devastating thanks to the superb vocal interpretation, and the psycho-stoner trip “Rain When I Die “, over six minutes in 6/4 time, with a Staley at the pinnacle of expressiveness and vocal power. “Sickman” definitively removes all doubts: a percussive, fast, violent verse, with a coarse and shouted song, contrasts a refrain at the limit of conceivable morbidity, illegitimate stepson of “Love, Hate, Love”, slowed down beyond belief, based on a dissonant and distorted arpeggio and lulled by a voice that intones a dark dirge (“I can see the end is getting near / … ah, what’s the difference, I’ll die in this sick world of mine”). There is no hope of redemption.

“Rooster”, a song dedicated by Cantrell to his father’s experience in Vietnam, is an unexpected and sudden oasis of peace, at least for the first few minutes: the sweet guitar arpeggio conceals the brutality of the text (“Ain’t found a way to kill me yet … seems every path leads me to nowhere “), up to the sound explosion of the chorus where Staley impresses again with power and passion. From here on it is a real descent into the abyss: the following five songs trace the ideal path towards that point of no return. The drugs are Staley’s demon, in it he finds refuge from the world and from his own evil of living, a terrible and irreversible pain.

“Junkhead” describes the initial phase of the fall, played on a lopsided and heavy riff, interspersed with one of the most melodic and powerful refrains of the album, “Dirt”, the title track, is based on a very slow riff with an Arabic flavor: the euphoria was a moment of respite, it has already disappeared, anguish takes over (“I want you to kill me and dig me under, I wanna live no more “). “Godsmack”, interlocutory from the point of view of the conceptual sequence, is instead very interesting musically, faster and “rock” than the songs that surround it, made unique by a thrilling vocal interpretation that perfectly renders the sensations of the addict in crisis, with a lot of vocal tremors and consequent delirium.

Finally, “Angry Chair”, a masterpiece of paranoia in music, a verse that makes apathy its weapon to upset what remains of the listener’s mental clarity, knocking it down with a monochord melody, a hypnotic cantata enriched with delay and effects to make it even more impressive, and a falsely consoling refrain that actually sings the final surrender to the inevitable ruin.

There remains space for another oasis of melody, in some ways the absolute apex of the record, a song of death and abandonment which, although not directly linked to the “concept” just closed, is the ideal final act. It’s “Down In A Hole”, an apocalyptic ballad where the intertwining of the voices of Cantrell and Staley reaches the apex of pathos: “Bury me softly in this womb” is the opening, “I’ve eaten the sun and my tongue has been burnt off the taste “is the admission of guilt of a desolate man in front of his destiny. Five minutes of sweet melodies and guitar walls: a true masterpiece. The album could end here, but in the queue, Alice wanted to put a piece of composition earlier than that of all the others, already known to the public because it was used in the soundtrack of the aforementioned film “Singles” by Cameron Crowe:

“Would?”, an alt-rock with a great melodic and emotional impact, is the gloss to the previous decay, the definitive declaration of surrender even where there was a desire for redemption, because loneliness prevents any healing (“If I would, could you?”).

Dirt will sell four million copies in the United States alone, remaining in the Billboard charts for two years, Alice In Chains become world superstars. Problems related to drug abuse begin to become more serious: bassist Mike Starr is forced to leave the band, replaced by Mike Inez, formerly in Ozzy Osbourne’s band.

In April 1993 the first two excellent tracks recorded with the new bassist, “What The Hell Have I?” (an accelerated “Dirt” that leads to an epic chorus) and “A Little Bitter” (which anticipates what will be the typical “nu-metal” sounds in a few years) will end up in the soundtrack of the film “Last Action Hero “.

Among the giants of Grunge

Dirt’s successor, in January 1994, will be another semi-acoustic Ep, this time at the antipodes of Sap’s sobriety. The sound is full of almost baroque arrangements, vocal overdubs, guitars, strings, and percussion. It is “Jar Of Flies” and is among the best releases of the quartet, even if light years away from the most congenial dimension to the group, that of the wall of distorted guitars.

Seven tracks, many of them of unmatched brilliance, from the sick blues of the opener “Rotten Apple”, from the indolent dreamlike gait, to the acoustic intimacy of “Nutshell”: four minutes of pure musical poetry, a three-bar lap composed only of two chords, E minor and C, a memorable solo in the finale, and a thrilling text. “My gift of self is depraved / My privacy is raped / And yet I find repeating in my head / if I can’t be my own I’d feel better dead”. Followed by the epic and fairytale “I Stay Away”, vaguely reminiscent of certain prog sounds, to the perfect decadent pop of “No Excuses”, the country melancholy leading to the gospel of “Don’t”, the amused “Swing On This”, the instrumental embroidery “Whale & Wasp”, in which Cantrell’s guitars seem to paint a sunset.

Jar Of Flies, written and recorded straight away in just one week, debuts directly at number 1 on the Billboard Top 200, becoming the first Ep in history to achieve such a result, and the first Alice In Chains publication to reach the top of the charts. But the problems linked to Staley’s drug addiction become really serious, and the group suffers a first, heavy setback, finding themselves forced to cancel the tour scheduled for the summer of 1994. Staley begins a detoxification process that unfortunately will never see him fully recover.

But a small glimmer of hope lights up, just when insistent voices now give them up for dead. Staley himself is the first to come back to life with the Mad Season side-project, a supergroup in which the guitarist Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, the drummer Barret Martin of the Screaming Trees and the bassist John Baker Saunders of the Walkabouts participate. Staley sings and creates the artwork, the band will hold a series of concerts and on March 14, 1995 will release an intense and beautiful single album of acid and psychedelic blues. It will also feature two features by Mark Lanegan. Over time “Above” will be recognized as one of the key records of the Seattle sound, and in 2013 it will be remembered with an unmissable remastered edition, containing the cover “I Do Not Wanna Be A Soldier” and further four tracks that should have been part of a second album. that never saw the light. This luxurious deluxe edition also contains the live recording of a concept held in 1995 and the related DVD.

The inevitable brakeup

When the hypothesis of a breakup seems to take place, on November 7, 1995 the group’s third album comes out, simply titled Alice In Chains, but also known as “Tripod” because of the cover photo that immortalizes a three-legged dog. It is a claustrophobic, experimental record, even darker than its predecessor. Any reference to the blues is abandoned, and “post” influences are incorporated, even if it is always hard-rock that reigns supreme. If musically the album is slightly inferior to expectations, while not lacking excellent tracks (the opener “Grind”, once again played on the epic tones dear to the group; the electric ballad “Shame In You”, strong of an exciting melodic and pleasant guitar inventions by Cantrell; “Sludge Factory”, granite and immediately classic; the long “Frogs”, with an interminable, wobbling psychedelic coda, the single “Again” and the lopsided “God Am”), and if on a vocal level, Staley’s interpretation can no longer be said to live up to the past (fatigue is evident, and is only partially masked by the usual sea of ​​vocal overdubs – indeed still very suggestive, alienating and particular, but increasingly a palliative to overcome the difficulties of holding demanding melodies), it is the lyrics that shine with their own light this time.

Staley’s compositional maturation is complete and makes him capable of verses in which, without abandoning rhymes and metrics, concepts and words reach remarkable depth, amidst disconsolate expletives (“Dear God, how have you been, then? I’m not fine, fuck pretending / all of this death you’re sending / best throw some free heart mending / Invite you in my heart, then / when done, my sins forgiven? / This god of mine relaxes / world dies I still pay taxes “-” God Am “) and bitter reflections on one’s loneliness (” What does friend mean to you? / A word so wrongfully abused / are you like me, confused? All included but you alone “-” Frogs “). Jerry Cantrell tries to get his way too, singing “Heaven Beside You” entirely and holding the main vocals of two others (“Grind”, “Over Now”). The difference in charisma, however, is merciless towards Cantrell. Alice In Chains will debut directly at number 1 on the Billboard charts and over time sales will be certified in the United States with a double platinum record. Despite the success, the band will decide not to embark on a promotional tour in support of the album, due to Staley’s increasingly evident health problems.

The musical history of Alice In Chains actually ends here. There remains space for some rare live performances, as in the case of the four dates in support of the Kiss reunion tour in 1996, with Staley, a ghost of himself, wrapped in a heavy black suit and with motorcycle gloves, clinging to the auction of the microphone, yet vocally up to expectations. At the end of the last show Staley was hospitalized following a heroin overdose.

MTV Unplugged

On April 10, 1996, Alice In Chains starred in an exciting acoustic show recorded for the MTV series Unplugged, featuring many of their greatest hits and the unreleased “Killer Is Me” sung by Cantrell. For the first time the line up is expanded to a fifth member, guitarist Scott Olson. In July of the same year the performance will be released both on disc (MTV Unplugged, much loved by fans) and on DVD. Some collections will follow with a couple of unpublished and many interviews, including a very famous one released by Layne to Rolling Stone, in which the singer confesses about his now incurable addiction to heroin.

Jerry Cantrell, unable to continue the path with Staley, decided to start his own solo career, which will yield the acclaimed Boggy Depot (1998, Columbia, with the participation of Sean Kinney and Mike Inez) and the subsequent Degradation Trip (2002, Roadrunner ). The latter will be reissued at the end of the same year in a double limited edition, entitled Degradation Trip Volumes 1 & 2.

Layne Staley began a life as a recluse, rarely leaving the Seattle apartment building where he lived, especially after the death of ex-girlfriend Demri Parrott from an overdose on October 29, 1996. In October 1998, Staley reunited Alice In chains to record two new songs, “Get Born Again” and “Died”, which will end up in the Music Bank box set, released in late 1999 and containing 48 tracks, including rarities, demos and unreleased material. An abridged version was also released, with only 15 tracks, titled Nothing Safe: Best Of The Box. A live album will follow in 200 and the successful Greatest Hits compilation in 2001.

Meanwhile, after years of rumors about her actual health, Layne Staley is found dead of an overdose at her Seattle home on April 19, 2002. He had been vegetating for months in complete solitude. His body is discovered two weeks after his death. A sad and miserable exit from the scene, far from the blateness of the last desperate gesture of the other (and better known) Seattle icon. The last inevitable bitter act of a desperate and (too) sincere life.

The second life of Alice In Chains

If Pearl Jam has always been considered unimaginable without the histrionic presence of Eddie Vedder, or Soundgarden without the voice of Chris Cornell, Alice In Chains will demonstrate that they can worthily survive even without the icon which was Layne Staley, thanks to the privilege of being able to field in his lineup another champion of the caliber of Jerry Cantrell, the group’s main composer, as well as a skilled guitarist and singer. In fact, the band will return to the scene fourteen years later, picking up the conversation exactly where it left off. Confirmed in the rhythm section Sean Kinney (drums) and Mike Inez (bass), Cantrell will present to the world the new singer William DuVall, with a tone of voice that will very closely resemble that of Staley.

Black Gives Way To Blue (2009) is a new beginning on which the spirit of the old Layne hovers from the first notes of the initial “All Secrets Known”, so much so that he seems to sing the incipit himself. If you are among those who have discovered and appreciated Alice In Chains only with the famous Unplugged, here there will be something to drink in the crystal clear waters of “Your Decision”, “When The Sun Rose Again” and above all the final title track, which sees Sir Elton John as guest of honor on the floor.

If in “Check My Brain” the “new” Alice In Chains try to play pimp through a blatantly pop refrain, elsewhere the atmospheres become slow and dark (in “Acid Bubble”) or tending to metal (“A Looking In View “,” Last Of My Kind “). Significant results are obtained in the middle streets, well represented by the usable triptych “Lesson Learned” – “Take Her Out” – “Private Hell”. In 54 minutes that pass by without too many jolts, the mood that made the band internationally famous is confirmed, avoiding any sudden change of course.

Goodbye Mike

On March 8, 2011 death falls upon Alice In Chains again: the body of the first bassist of the formation, Mike Starr, is found lifeless in a residence in Salt Lake City. Starr had serious heroin addiction problems in the past, so much so that he was forced to leave the band in 1993, replaced by Mike Inez. A few days before his death he had been arrested by the police on suspicion of being in possession of drugs.

Once this new disappearance has been metabolized, Cantrell and associates continue their own recording path: in 2013 the interlocutor “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here” adds little to the history of the band, but helps to keep it firmly on tour around the globe.

On August 24, 2018, the third act of Alice In Chains’ second life arrives: “Rainier Fog”, which offers a lot of craft and emotions with a dropper. Epic choruses, doubling of voices, granite riffs, melodic openings: the ingredients are always the same. The band focuses on hard rock transmuted into American rock by FM, well made but at times plasticky (“Fly”, “Never Fade”), in search of that radio passage that risks transforming them more into the new Boston than not. in a recontextualization of the heroes of “Would?”. Then, of course, at times he jumps in his chair due to the striking resemblance – but it is no longer a novelty now – between the voice of Robert DuVall and that of Layne Staley, especially in the lines of the vocals that make “Deaf Ears Blind Eyes” and “So Far Under” the songs closest to the sound (and vocality) of the golden age.

For the nostalgic

Jerry Cantrell continues to be the main songwriter of a band that has sold over 35 million copies, but this time for those who loved “Dirt” and “Facelift” the reasons of real interest are less than usual: a lot of energy but too much essentially harmless material. . The poignant ballads “Maybe” and “All I Am” would like to allay old languors, but they are the carbon copy of ideas already proposed several times. The story of the Alice In Chains branded in 2018 is a little faded: between memories of the past and tributes to the companions of fortune who disappeared prematurely, Rainier Fog is just recommended for nostalgics of the early 90s.

Giancarlo 🤘

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