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Opinion | The reinvention of Alice In Chains

Seattle's grunge metal pioneers are back with a new album that takes their legacy forward

Sean Kinney (left) and Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains during a performance in Hollywood, Florida, in 2015. Photo: Alamy
Sean Kinney (left) and Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains during a performance in Hollywood, Florida, in 2015. Photo: Alamy

In early 1991, when Cameron Crowe set out to make Singles, the rom-com film set in Seattle amidst the then just-emerging grunge music scene of that city, Pearl Jam were yet to change their name from Mookie Blaylock; their debut album, Ten, hadn’t been released yet; and their early gigs included playing opening sets for bands such as Alice in Chains. The Singles soundtrack album came out before the film was released in 1992, and it became the flag-bearer for Seattle’s grunge music bands and their subsequent success. Crowe’s film is intertwined with the emergence of that subculture: there are cameo appearances by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard; by Chris Cornell; and by Alice in Chains, who feature as a bar band in the film.

The first track on the Singles soundtrack album is Alice in Chains’ Would?, a song that would later appear on the band’s second album, Dirt, and one that is believed to be written in memory of Andrew Wood, singer of Mother Love Bone, an early grunge band from Seattle. Not long before Would? debuted on the Singles soundtrack, Wood had died of a heroin overdose. Two members of his band would later join Vedder and Mike McCready to form the band that became Pearl Jam and achieve phenomenal success. But that’s another story.

My introduction to Alice in Chains happened via the Singles album, a cassette that a friend recommended and I bought from Mumbai’s now closed music store Rhythm House. Would? hooked me to the band. Lead singer Layne Staley was gifted with a huge vocal range but his powerful voice was also hauntingly dark and deep. And, his voice, along with Kurt Cobain’s, Vedder’s, and Chris Cornell’s would become one of the four definitive voices of Seattle’s grunge scene. Sadly, three of those singers are no more. Staley died in 2002 from what is believed to be an overdose of a deadly cocktail of heroin and cocaine. But there are three studio and two live recordings to remember him by.

There is also Alice in Chains, the band, which is still alive. Led by co-founder, main songwriter and guitarist Jerry Cantrell, the band, in 2006, replaced Staley with singer William DuVall, and their first album after Staley’s death, Black Gives Way To Blue, was released in 2009. That album was followed by The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here in 2013; and late this August, they released Rainier Fog. Unlike other grunge rock bands, Alice in Chains’ roots lie in heavy metal. Before forming the band, both Cantrell and Staley played in metal bands and the influence of heavy metal is the differentiator in Alice in Chains’ sound. To the idiom of grunge’s characteristic angst-filled lyrics, and noisy, distorted guitar riffs, Alice in Chains added metal’s dense loudness. The combination worked.

On Dirt, which many consider the band’s greatest work, the overriding theme is heavily influenced by Staley’s heroin addiction. It is pained and confessional. On Down In A Hole, Staley sings: “Down in a hole and I don’t know if I can be saved/ See my heart I decorate it like a grave/ You don’t understand who they thought/ I was supposed to be/ Look at me now a man/ Who won’t let himself be." Bleak and tortured, like the rest of the album, yet strangely appealing.

While Staley was alive, Alice in Chains struggled with various problems, many of them stemming from Staley’s addiction and poor health. The band had to cancel several live performances and even went on an unofficial hiatus.But in 1996, they recorded a gig, an Unplugged session for MTV. They selected songs from their back catalogue and played them in minimalist, acoustic style. Many hardcore fans were a bit disappointed by the subdued sound on the Unplugged album, but some (as I do) consider it one of their finest recordings. Songs such as Would?, Rooster and Sludge Factory were reinvented on Unplugged and the album’s tightness shows how talented the band was.

Post-Staley, not much has changed in the talent department. DuVall slipped easily into the lead singer’s role and the band stuck to its roots of dark hard rock. His vocal style is not the same as Staley’s but both he and the older members of the band managed to seamlessly take Alice in Chains’ legacy forward. That’s true for the re-formed band’s third and latest album, Rainier Fog, too. Recorded in Seattle, and named after Mount Rainier near the city, the band’s trademark sound—abrasive metal-informed guitar work and gloomy lyrics—is intact. The metal riffs on tracks like Drone; the harmonized vocals on Maybe, and even the slightly lighter track Fly, clearly demonstrate that Alice in Chains is not only alive but thriving.

What may be missing is the tortured anxiety that marked the band’s early albums when Staley was alive but that could be a good thing. Today, as in their early years, Alice in Chains don’t make happy, upbeat music but their angst-ridden early years fitted with the zeitgeist of those times. More than a quarter of a century later, the spirit of the times is different. Grunge went mainstream years ago. Nirvana T-shirts are sported even by people who’ve never heard the band. And many bands that emerged out of what was once a city’s underground subculture, such as Pearl Jam, have gone unabashedly mainstream. Alice in Chains have remarkably re-invented themselves for these times.


The Lounge list

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Rainier Fog’ by Alice in Chains from ‘Rainier Fog’

2. ‘Would?’ by Alice in Chains from the ‘Singles Original Motion Picture Soundtrack’

3. ‘Rain When I Die’ by Alice in Chains from ‘Dirt’

4. ‘Private Hell’ by Alice in Chains from ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’

5. ‘Down In A Hole’ by Alice in Chains from ‘Unplugged’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

He tweets at @sanjoynarayan

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