Progressive Grunge Rock

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