Layne Staley

REVIEW: Alice in Chains – MTV Unplugged (1996)

ALICE IN CHAINS – MTV Unplugged (1996 Sony)

MTV’s Unplugged series is responsible for some of the best live albums you’ll find. Certainly Kiss’ instalment is up there, and so is Alice in Chains’. It’s somewhat strange that Alice’s first live album was an acoustic performance, but they have always been a two sided band. At least in the early days, you could count on an acoustic EP between electric albums.  Their Unplugged focuses on mellow(ish) moments from everything but their debut, Facelift.

“Nutshell” from Jar of Flies is a brilliant opener.  It sets a dark, quiet tone that follows through the whole album.  For this show, Alice added guitarist Scott Olsen to free up Jerry Cantrell’s hands to solo.  The eerie quiet of the audience only adds to the tension.  “Brother” from Sap is next; a showcase for the harmonies of Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell.  Their vocal blend was Alice’s most defining feature.  The big single from Jar of Flies, “No Excuses” rounds out this trio.  Once again the harmonies kill it.  MTV Unplugged is an unforgiving format.  They had to do it live.  They could do multiple takes, but one of them has to be perfect.  “No Excuses” is perfect, and just listen to the percussion work of Sean Kinney!

A number of album tracks, better known as heavy electric songs, are next.  Right after a lil’ bit of “Enter Sandman”, Alice in Chains do the newbie “Sludge Factory” for the first time ever.  Due to Layne’s health, Alice were unable to tour in ’95-’96.  They played only five shows; Unplugged was the first.  (The other four were opening for Kiss, who also had an Unplugged album in 1996.)  “Sludge Factory” is a difficult song from a murky album.  Though was well received, “Down in a Hole” from Dirt earns more shouts of familiarity.  Layne clearly poured himself into the song.

“Angry Chair” is one of Alice in Chains’ heaviest songs; to hear it unplugged is strange but oddly appropriate.  Instead of raging, it simmers.  “Rooster” too is more peaceful, though an undercurrent of angst is always present.  It’s a song about Jerry’s dad, a Vietnam vet.  Sean Kinney’s marching band style drums give a slight military feel.  Layne absolutely wails on “Got Me Wrong” from Sap, and if you want intensity then check out “Would?”.  Even though the band hadn’t played live in ages, and despite Layne’s fragility, they were certainly as good as ever on MTV Unplugged.

A cluster of new material lies on the back end.  “Heaven Beside You” was always (largely) acoustic, but live it has a swagger.  For songs that were always challenging, “Frogs” is certainly one, and it is no less so unplugged.  It is more about the atmosphere than the notes.  “Over Now”, however, is a blast.

Alice finished the set with a new song called “Killer is Me”.  Like many of their songs it has atonal qualities that make it a difficult pill to swallow.  It has never been recorded in the studio, which makes the unplugged show that much more special.

Listening to MTV Unplugged, you can’t help but miss Layne.  A fun side of him shone that night.  “I just wanna hug you all!…but I’m not gonna,” he exclaims at the end.  It is true that the band eventually found a way to carry on with William Duvall, and they have done so very well.  But Layne…he was something special that only happens once.

4.5/5 stars

 

 

 

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REVIEW: Alice in Chains – Alice in Chains (1995)

ALICE IN CHAINS – Alice in Chains (1995 Columbia)

Alice in Chains (known colloquially as Tripod) is a difficult album.  It was difficult to make, and it’s hard to listen to.  Singer Layne Staley was in the throws of heroin addiction, but what came out of it was a portrait of everything the band went through.  It’s ugly, atonal, and occasionally brutally heavy.

Guitarist Jerry Cantrell stepped up with more lead vocals, while Layne harmonized.  Lead track “Grind” is one example of this.  Layne’s role on this song is limited but critical to the overall vibe.  His distorted snarl is integral to what amounts to an angry, lead-footed song.  “Brush Away” is more conventional, though Jerry’s droning guitar melodies keep it on the edge.  It drones on even while the riff is going its own way.  “Brush Away” is relentless but “Sludge Factory” takes it back to a slower grunge.  A song like “Sludge Factory” is a perfect definition of grunge at its best.  Who knows how the hell they came up with these ideas.  Pairing a weird “woo ooo” vocal with the heaviest of riffs and an avante-garde solo is innovative indeed.

“Heaven Beside You” is one of the easier songs to listen to, though MTV had to censor it.  “So there’s problems in your life, that’s fucked up, I’m not blind.”  Jerry sings lead on this acoustic number that sounds like a bridge between the acoustic band of Jar of Flies and the electric one of Dirt.  It has a bit of a winter chill, just like the lyrics suggest.  Don’t forget though, that Alice in Chains really like to write fucked up music.  “Head Creeps” is one of those tracks.  It sounds like an audio portrait of heroin withdrawal.  “No more time…just one more time.”  But listen to Sean Kinney just killing it on the unorthodox drum patterns.  They close the first side with an intense single called “Again”.  Once more it’s heavy, atonal and not at all commercial:  metal sludge with “doot doot” singing.

The second side is even darker.  A slow “Shame in You” is beautiful but sounds like depression embodied in sound.  “God Am”, though, is angry and bitter.  The lyrics are clever, and the riff is a beefy stutter.  “Can I be as my God am?” asks Layne in one of his most provoking songs.  “I’m not fine, fuck pretending.”  That may as well be the theme for the entire album.  They were not fine, and they were not pretending.  Despite this, musically Alice in Chains could not be touched by their contemporaries.  Only Soundgarden could have been capable of playing music of this complexity.

Writer’s block seems to come up in the storming “So Close” and “Nothing Song”.  “It’s the same old sit-down roll-around chewed-up pen,” says Layne in “So Close”.  His humorous side comes out in “Nothing Song”, with a stream of consciousness lyric that veers from autobiographical to bizarre.  It’s one of the weirdest songs on the album, and Jerry’s shrieking guitar is an absolute treat.

“Frogs” and “Over Now” end the album on a pair of slower-paced songs.  “Frogs” simmers low and slow, but “Over Now” is an another acoustic one with a brighter center.  Jerry sings what might be about as close as Alice ever got to a campfire singalong song.

When it was first issued, you could get Alice in Chains in two different coloured jewel cases.  Most were yellow with a purple spine, but the very rarest ones were purple with a yellow spine.*  Even the cassettes came in coloured cases — yellow, with a purple tape inside.  Whichever you choose, prepare yourself for an album that will stubbornly refuse to open up to you on just one or two listens.  It’s good, but not for the meek.

3.5/5 stars

* I’ve seen it, but never in good enough condition.  The case is always scuffed or broken.  Inspect before you buy.