Mike Inez

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.

REVIEW: Ozzy Osbourne – No More Tears (remaster)

“Politicians make decisions, they’re the ones to blame, so don’t blame me.”  — Ozzy Osbourne

OZZY OSBOURNE – No More Tears (originally 1991, 2002 Sony remastered edition)

No More Tears was a big hit for Ozzy and is usually hailed as a “comeback” and “his best album since Randy Rhoads”. But is it?

No More Tears certainly offers chills, thrills and new sounds.  Slide guitar on an Ozzy album?  Check out “Mr. Tinkertrain”.  Zakk Wylde was starting to spread out and grow, really exploring his southern roots and adapting that to heavy metal.  No More Tears might be the peak of Ozzy’s collaborations with Zakk, as they really did produce some magic here.  Some of the stuff Zakk does on “Mr. Tinkertrain” alone is career-defining.

Ozzy was also trying to escape his “satanic” image, and No More Tears was his step away from that.  It’s also a step towards the mainstream.  Second track “I Don’t Want to Change the World” is an example of Ozzy’s turn to radio-ready hard rock.  It’s a shame because after the chunky guitar assault of “Mr. Tinkertrain”, a speedy metal track like “Don’t Blame Me” would have been perfect in the second slot.  “I Don’t Want to Change the World” is unfortunately not much better than a Motley Crue filler track.  It’s repetitive and despite Zakk’s squeals and licks, fails to launch.  His solo at least scorches hot.  Then the whole thing gets stuck in the mud.  “Mama, I’m Coming Home” (lyrics co-written by Lemmy) was the hit ballad that I never liked.  “Mama” more than any of the other tracks really represented Ozzy’s desire to break free of the shackles of his own image.  There are better ballads on the album.  “Mama” is so generic it could have been recorded by literally anybody.

Moving past, the album catches a little air due to the groovy chugging riff of “Desire”.  The stock melody doesn’t do it many favours, but momentum is restored.

Ozzy did well by discovering his newest member, bass player Mike Inez who later went on to Alice in Chains.  Inez was a co-writer on the title track “No More Tears” and his bass line has become a signature hook.  “No More Tears” is one of Ozzy’s greatest achievements as a recording artist.  This is a direction he should have explored further.  Even though it’s incredibly memorable and accessible, “No More Tears” has slightly progressive and psychedelic elements mixed in.  Its groove was detuned and modern, but the samples and keys bring it levels above what most other mainstream bands were doing in 1991.  And then there’s Zakk’s slippery slide guitar expertise.  It just doesn’t get any better than “No More Tears”.  Ozzy wanted to move beyond being the clown prince of devilish metal?  Mission accomplished and then some, in a completely fearless 7:24.  Ozzy was an innovator when he was in Black Sabbath, and in 1991 he became that again on “No More Tears”.

Opening side two, “S.I.N.” is great old-school Ozzy metal.  Call it “S.I.N.” or just “Shadows in the Night”, this track has the kind of classic hooks and soaring vocals that Ozzy is so good at delivering.  Ozzy had a core writing team of Zakk and drummer Randy Castillo, who wrote this killer.  Lemmy stepped in to help out on “Hellraiser” which Motorhead recorded as well on 1992’s March ör Die.  “Hellraiser” is too middle of the road to be classic.  Even Motorhead’s version kind of sucks.

A stock ballad called “Time After Time” is a tad better than “Mama, I’m Coming Home”.  It has some pretty sweet melodies and harmonies going for it, and another brilliant Zakk solo.  “Zombie Stomp” brings back the heavy, simply by living up to its name.  You got a name like that, you better stomp, and this one stomps like all the beasts in the jungle are coming for you now.  It’s also plenty of fun.  Surely an underappreciated Ozzy career highlight.  Drummer Randy Castillo had a lot to be proud of on this one, as he took the spotlight for the two minute tribal intro.  When that’s all over, Zakk powers the groove.

More fun ensues on “A.V.H.” (no idea what that stands for).  A little bit of southern pickin’ from Zakk gives way to an adrenaline powered blast.  It’s a shorty compared to some of the more epic lengthy songs.  Finally “Road to Nowhere” ends the album with a retrospective.  “I was looking back on my life, and all the things I’ve done to me.”  It’s easily the strongest ballad on the album and one of Ozzy’s personal best.  “The wreckage of my past keeps haunting me,” wrote Ozzy in 1991, perhaps not knowing that it always will.

There is no arguing the importance of the song “Mama, I’m Coming Home” in the career of Ozzy.  It went top 30, and was huge on MTV.  Would No More Tears be a better album without it?  Should Ozzy have released it as a single or on a movie soundtrack?  Try this.  Remove “Mama” from the album, and put the B-side track “Don’t Blame Me”* in between “Mr. Tinkertrain” and “I Don’t Want to Change the World”. There is something to be said for a good B-side, and Ozzy has done a number over the years.  Yet “Don’t Blame Me” is far too good for that fate.  It combines riff with groove and hooks like nothing else on the album, and just listen to Zakk’s funky pickin’.  Fortunately it’s on the 2002 Sony remastered CD, along with a lesser B-side called “Party With the Animals”.  You might remember it from the 1992 soundtrack Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  “Animals” is definite B-side material.

Back to our original question.  Was No More Tears the “best album since Randy Rhoads”?  It’s quite good and easily his biggest since Randy Rhoads.  But it has filler, and some of that filler is downright annoying.  The remastered edition is the one to get, since you don’t want to miss out on “Don’t Blame Me”.  Bark at the Moon is likely the high water mark since the passing of Rhoads.  No More Tears is still one to own, even if you have the hits, for some killer and underrated album tracks (and one B-side).

3.5/5 stars

* Two early album titles used for this record were Don’t Blame Me and No Dogs Allowed.

REVIEW: Ozzy Osbourne – Live & Loud (1993 grille cover)

OZZY OSBOURNE – Live & Loud (limited edition 1993 Epic speaker grille edition)

Ozzy Osbourne has done lots and lots of tours since his “No More Tours Tour”.  It seemed special at the time, because we thought Live & Loud was going to be the last live album.   It was not.   What was supposed to be a definitive and indispensable capstone is just another live album, only really notable for its packaging.

Let’s start there.  If you buy this album, don’t buy the remastered edition in the jewel case.  This album didn’t need remastering a couple years later.  Why would it?  Instead search for the original digipack with the metal speaker grille cover.  Finding one in good shape can be a challenge.  Unfortunately, the metal grille is not removable although the VHS release did have a removable grille.  The release also came with two Ozzy “temporary tattoos” on little 2″ x 2″ sheets of paper.  These are the first things to get lost and you might want to consider that you’ll never find them.

Live & Loud scores an A+ for packaging, but gets mediocre grades for the music.  This is patched together from a variety of recordings, and it sounds like a lot of fixing was done after the fact.  It’s bogged down with over-long guitar and drum solos (Zakk Wylde and Randy Castillo) and too much talking.  There is only so much that one needs to be told to “go fucking crazy”.  Ozzy proclaims that he loves us so often that it loses all meaning.  He’s more of a cheerleader than a singer at times, constantly badgering the crowd to get “louder”!  There is also an annoyingly long intro that means nothing without the visual accompaniment that’s supposed to go with it.  I will admit that my buddy Peter and I were amused when Ozzy said “Let me see your fucking cigarette lighters” during “Mr. Crowley”.

On the plus side, this particular lineup of Ozzy’s band was one of his strongest.  Zakk and Randy were joined by bassist Mike Inez who was invited to join Alice in Chains in 1993.  Another plus is the presence of Black Sabbath.  The second to last song is “Black Sabbath”, performed by the original Black Sabbath, at the final show on the tour.  Fans will recall that Sabbath were touring their incredible Dehumanizer album, which frankly blows away Ozzy’s No More Tears.   When Sabbath (then including Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Vinny Appice and Ronnie James Dio) were asked to open for Ozzy at his final two concerts, Dio bailed.  He was replaced for those shows by a little known metal singer named Rob Halford.  At the last of the two shows, the original Black Sabbath featuring Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward reunited to play a three song set.  It was their first time together since Live Aid in 1985.

Unfortunately, a couple tracks aside, Live & Loud is flat and uninspired.  “Black Sabbath” isn’t brilliant but at least it’s historic.  All the important songs are there, with maybe a few too many from No More Tears.  There is one surprise in “Changes”, the old Sabbath classic.  This is performed by Zakk on piano and Ozzy.  It’s brilliant and was used as the single.  “Mr. Crowley”, “Shot in the Dark” and “Desire” are pretty good, but drummer Randy Castillo was killing it.  He was the perfect drummer for that band.  Rest in peace Randy.

Live & Loud is for the serious fan only, who will really want to get the grille cover.  Live & Loud is not consistent enough for the average listener and gets bogged down in spots making it a very long run.

2/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Alice In Chains – Jar of Flies / Sap (Double EP)

Click if you missed my review of the new Alice in Chains album, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here!

ALICE IN CHAINS – Jar of Flies / Sap (1994 double Columbia EP edition, originally 1992 and 1994)

For a little while, Alice In Chains were in the habit of releasing an EP before each studio album (We Die Young preceded the Facelift album albeit it was a promo). This ended after Layne’s death, but these two EPs — 1992’s Sap and 1994’s Jar of Flies — represent some of the best work of this pioneering band. Acoustic in nature, these two recordings are crucial to rock fans who need to know more about one of the most interesting bands of the 1990’s.

I snagged a European import of this set many years ago, for less than the price of either of the two EP’s separately.  Great score, and it was in great condition.  It even contains all the artwork from the original releases.  Although Jar of Flies is the first disc in the set, I will review Sap first since that’s how they came out.

JAR OF SAP_0004Sap is very low key. I remember reading an interview in RIP Magazine with drummer Sean Kinney.  He stated that they were writing songs for the next album (Dirt), but all this acoustic music started pouring out instead.  He had a dream about it one night, and told the band, “Guys, we have to release these songs as an EP, and we have to call it Sap.”

The opening track, “Brother” is sung by Jerry Cantrell with Ann Wilson of Heart on the choruses. Very powerful understated song. Both “Brother” and the next song, “Got Me Wrong” (another standout) were released live on the band’s Unplugged CD. These songs are followed by “Right Turn” by Alice Mudgarden: essentially Alice In Chains with Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Mark Arm of Mudhoney on guest vocals! It is a great contrast: Cornell screaming at the top of his lungs, and Arm down low. Great song.  I remember Jerry Cantrell once said that Mark Arm’s vocal on it “scares the shit” out of him every time he hears it.

Layne Staley’s “Am I Inside” follows, another understated and mellow slow-burner. Everything goes to hell though with the final track, the unlisted “Love Song”. The band switched instruments for this chaotic joke song, with Sean Kinney on megaphone/vocals. Hilarious track, but it must have taken people by surprise.  “Rae Dawn Chong…Rae Dawn Chong…”

JAR OF SAP_0003Jar of Flies was written and recorded rather spontaneously in just a week. When I first heard it, I felt like some of these songs were under-written, that they could have used more work. As you listen to it more, that feeling disappears.  It feels more complete. Just about every song on Flies is a total winner, but the best thing about it is that it grows on you. As a result, it has a longevity that similar EPs sometimes lack. Here I am, still playing it 19 years later and loving it just as much.

“Rotten Apple”, which is one of the best tunes anyway, kicks off the CD.  It’s hypnotic, even though the lyrics really feel unfinished.  Who knows what Layne was trying to express at the time, perhaps it’s with intent. It just feels like the fragment of a lyric. Perhaps that’s what makes it so hypnotic to me.  None of this changes the fact that this slow one is both warm and forboding at the same time; a cool thing.

The opener is followed by “Nutshell”, which I like even better.  It’s my personal favourite tune on Jar of Flies. It always takes me right back to summer 1994.  The single “I Stay Away” features strings to emphasize the powerful chorus.  It’s a cool tune because it has sections that sound like they don’t go together, yet they make it work.  Alice seem to ignore songwriting convention most on songs like “I Stay Away”.

“No Excuses” was another single (the first one, actually).  It’s an almost-happy sounding song with some sweet rolling basslines from Mike Inez. The instrumental “Whale and Wasp” is up next, so named because Jerry felt it sounded like whales and wasps talking to each other. That should put you in the ballpark.  Jerry wrote it when he was in highschool, finally recording it on Jar of Flies.

“Don’t Follow” is probably the least experimental of the songs. It is a straight acoustic ballad with some nice harmonica.  After five tracks  of music that doesn’t always follow the beaten path, “Don’t Follow” feels like a reprieve.  The final song is the pretty wild “Swing On This”.  It’s the only song that tends to lose me, but some people I knew held it as their favourite. From the most conventional song to the least conventional; such is a journey on planet Alice.

Commenting specifically on the version I own, the dual EP, I bought this at my own store used several years after initially owning both releases.  My logic at the time was that T-Rev and I were usually always trying to own the “coolest” or “most complete” or “rarest” version of things.  When I traded up the two separate EPs, I broke even, plus I made space for one for more disc on my shelves!!  Space is always a rare commodity to a collector.

Together, these two EPs together create a fantastic listening experience. The cool thing is that although both are acoustic, they are really nothing alike. Listen and you will see.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Alice In Chains – The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here (2013)

ALICE IN CHAINS – The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here (2013 Capitol Records)

You know how in offices they have those phones with the little speaker in them, that plays the local radio station?  That’s how I first heard “Hollow” by Alice in Chains.  Not the greatest way to hear it.  I couldn’t hear the harmonies or the bass guitar.  The song came off as a dull drone and I didn’t like it. However Mandy Grant on 107.5 Dave FM said the album was lined up to be her album of the summer.  Then Tricky Nick gave it 5/5 and praised its genius!

Now it’s my turn to throw my hat in the ring.  I had no problem with Black Gives Way to Blue; yes it’s a sad album and we know why.  If anything I found some of the songs to be not memorable.  On the other hand, I found some of the softer material to be among Chains’ best.  Here, William DuVall does a great job.  I don’t get the sense that he’s trying to sound a certain way, but when he sings with Jerry it’s Alice in Chains.

CHAINS 3Onto The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here.  Love the title, love the artwork, love the packaging, but we’ll get to that in a few moments.  It’s an album that reveals more and more as you listen to it.  It’s really well produced for one.  Sonically, this is the best album Alice in Chains have ever made.  But musically, it peels like an onion:  brief guitar interludes, dual guitar harmonies, bass hooks, vocal flare, all of this stuff and more comes through when you spend some time with it.

I think I’d like to invent a new genre here and declare this record to be “Progressive Grunge Rock”.  It has elements of both, which really isn’t too much of a leap as Chains have always comprised some great musicians.  Mike Inez was one of my favourite bass players from his Ozzy days, and Sean Kinney is very creative with his symbol work and weird time signatures.  Only 2 of the 12 songs are under 5 minutes; the album clocks in well over an hour.  Unbelievably, it doesn’t drag.  This is accomplished with a combination of well written memorable hooks, and a variety of song styles.  Some moments recall mellow things like Jar of Flies, others the “Dog” album.  There’s also a lot of riffing and soloing that is pure traditional heavy metal.

Many reviewers have mentioned that this album seems a lot brighter than Black Give Way to Blue and I’m in agreement with that.  Keep in mind this is Alice in Chains and they’re not turning in a sunny-happy-joy-joy album at any time.  There is however a certain jubilant quality to this album that is quite infectious.

I keep waffling between favourite songs.  All of these are contenders:

  • “Stone”
  • “Voices”
  • “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here”
  • “Breath On a Window”
  • “Scalpel”
  • “Phantom Limb”
  • “Choke”

There aren’t any weak songs, but for me those 7 are all really exceptional.  I really love “Phanton Limb”.  It’s one of the most “metal” in some respects but it’s also one of the most unique.  Its riff is just mechanically punishing.  “Voices” is like Jar of Flies meets Cheap Trick or something.

The packaging is really cool but fragile.  Mine arrived with a slight crack on it.  It’s a coloured red jewel case, but with a function.  Remember how G1 Transformers used to come with those “Tech Spec Decoders”?  You had to use this red plastic “decoder” to read the stats on the robot’s packaging.  You could still sorta read it without the decoder, but Alice in Chains took it a step further.  You can only read the lyrics by inserting the appropriate page into the jewel case.  There are big red XXXXX‘s over most of the words making them very difficult to read.  When you put the page under the jewel case, it’s easy!

Having lived with the album for a week now, I concur with Mandy:  I think the love will grow, and this will be one of my albums for the summer, too.  The most important thing about The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is that it sounds like Alice in Chains.  There is nobody else out there that sounds like this.

5/5 stars