Alice In Chains: We Die Young

In this review I continue my assessment of key albums from the late 80s to the mid 90s.
Alice in Chains possessed a front man with the eerie powerful pipes of Ozzy Osbourne mixed with the power of Ronnie James Dio, and a guitarist who tastefully reinvented the sound of rock guitar for the 90s [...]

In this review I continue my assessment of key albums from the late 80s to the mid 90s.

Alice in Chains possessed a front man with the eerie powerful pipes of Ozzy Osbourne mixed with the power of Ronnie James Dio, and a guitarist who tastefully reinvented the sound of rock guitar for the 90s and beyond. This is a band that rose up the ranks quickly, and a band whose career was cut short due to Layne Staley’s struggles with substance abuse. Alice in Chains left behind a legacy that remains timeless, as well as songwriting that proved sadly prophetic with the demise of Staley in 2003.

It all started with the debut album titled Facelift released in 1989; prior to the release of Facelift, AIC flirted with a more straight ahead rock style reminiscent more of Guns N Roses than that of Black Sabbath (a band that would prove highly influential towards the Seattle Sound.) Facelift would be the last album containing material that would be considered light by Alice In Chains standard, more on this later.

Opening with ‘We Die Young’, the ultimate anthem for disaffected youth three years before ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ Alice In Chains did as much to kick open the Alternative/Seattle Scene as Nirvana did during the early ‘90s. Track 2’s ‘Man in the Box’ with the accompanying video received heavy rotation on MTV. ‘Man in the Box’ opens with a wah-wah powered riff courtesy of lead guitarist Jerry Cantrell. Layne Staley provides us with the introductory vocal hook that perfectly accents Cantrell’s guitar line.

With lines like “Feed my eyes, can you sew them shut” and “Jesus Christ deny your maker” one would be left wondering if ‘Man in the Box’ is an anti-religious song, I am left with the impression that ‘MITB’ is wholly based on censorship. At the end of the day, with guitars sounding so awesomely crunchy and a career defining vocal delivery, ‘MITB’ could be about Cheerios and would still sound amazing.

When I mention Layne Staley’s career defining vocal performance on ‘MINTB,’ this could be said about the album as a whole. This was before substance abuse would slowly rob Staley of his powerful vocal performances (most evident on the bands 1995 self-titled final release with Staley on vocals.) Track 3s ‘Sea of Sorrow’ is signature Alice In Chains, a style that would be fully refined on 1991s Dirt, with a syncopated introductory guitar hook, melodic vocals and a hard-hitting rhythm section. We are also introduced to the densely layered backing vocals that Alice in Chains would become known for.

Jerry Cantrell’s legacy as one of the most unique, visionary and creative guitarists has risen over the years. Cantrell is not only a talented guitarist, he is responsible for some of Alice in Chains most timeless and defining songs such as ‘Rooster,’ ‘Heaven Beside You’ and of course ‘Man in the Box’ to name a few.  Cantrell’s riffs are always memorably heavy as well as tasteful; his solos easily hummable, and his background vocals perfectly compliment Staley’s.

The rhythm section consisting of drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Starr provide a solid in the pocket groove, allowing Layne and Cantrell to paint skillfully atop the musical canvas. Never overplaying, and always tastefully accenting every syllable and guitar accent perfectly.

Track 11 ‘I know somethin’ (‘bout you)’ is the only audible filler track on Facelift, possibly left over from Alice In Chains days a pseudo-hair metal act. Despite my labeling, ‘I know somethin’ (‘bout you)’ is enjoyable in its funky carefree vibe.

Facelift ends with track 12 ‘Real Thing’ which begins with a clean, twangy almost bluesy guitar line, which promptly breaks into a stomping groove in 4/4. ‘Real Thing’ switches back and forth between a straight-ahead stomp to a more laid-back atmospheric background. Quite possibly the most metallic track on an album that is heavily indebted to metallic overtones.

Alice in Chains next proper full length release would be Dirt in ’91. Dirt is certifiably a classic, yet I rate Facelift slightly higher than Dirt. Facelift sounds like a band having fun and enjoying the ride to the top, whereas Dirt is the sound of drug addiction, depression and little hope.

In the end we all know the story of how Staley had become a recluse, disconnected from both his band and family during the last years of his life. The tabloid rumors of missing fingers that were masked by black gloves. Missing teeth and a thin painfully gaunt appearance is how most of us remembered Staley towards the end.

There was the one of side project Mad Season and the MTV Unplugged performance and then silence. Cantrell would embark on a successful solo career, while Staley fell out of sight and tragically become the figure that he had consistently sang about throughout his career.

To quote Neil Young:

I’ve seen the needle and the damage done/a little part of it in everyone/but every junkies like a setting sun.

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Alice In Chains: We Die Young