Alice in Chains was one of the bands that made up the so-called Seattle sound of the 1990s, excelling at moody hard rock songs that touched on dark subject matter. Alice in Chains didn’t have the same massive mainstream success or longevity as some of their Grunge peers, but they proved to be an influential band whose career was cut short by the death of their lead singer, Layne Staley.
Alice in Chains began as a Layne Staley project in the mid-’80s in Seattle. Soon, Staley teamed up with guitarist Jerry Cantrell, who recruited two friends (drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Starr) to become the band’s rhythm section. After touring and recording some demos, Alice in Chains signed with Columbia Records at the end of the decade.
Alice in Chains’ full-length debut, Facelift, came out in 1990. The album, largely written by Jerry Cantrell, was a decidedly bleak affair concerning outcasts, heathens and the permanently disillusioned. Layne Staley’s moaning, powerful vocals made these metal and hard rock tunes even more unsettling - his singsong growl on “Man in the Box” was both catchy and fearsome. Facelift opened the door for the later (and bigger) success of groups like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, and in turn those bands’ mainstream breakthrough would help usher Alice in Chains toward a higher level of visibility down the road.
In 1992, a mostly acoustic EP named Sap indicated the band’s burgeoning potential. Instead of the sludgy hard rock of Facelift, Sap’s moody, mysterious tunes were compelling and arresting while at the same time being very subdued musically. A few months after Sap’s release, Alice in Chains appeared on the soundtrack to Singles, which featured several alternative-rock acts like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins. The notoriety that the Singles’ soundtrack provided helped build anticipation for the release of the band’s next full-length record.
Coming out in September 1992, Dirt firmly placed Alice in Chains in the firmament of other successful Seattle bands of the era. Ironically, Dirt was far uglier and despairing than their contemporaries’ albums, painting such a portrait of hopeless drug addiction and shattered lives that its quadruple-platinum sales seemed all the more unlikely. Launching five singles onto Billboard’s Mainstream Rock charts, Dirt demonstrated a band’s growing confidence at writing hard rock and metal material that made room for accessibility but not at the expense of a determinedly downbeat worldview.
By 1994, the band had lost bassist Mike Starr, who was replaced by Mike Inez. Meanwhile, Alice released another EP, Jar of Flies. (Later editions of Jar of Flies would include Sap as a twofer.) As with Sap, Jar of Flies was a more scaled-back affair, offering acoustic numbers and stylistic excursions that would have seemed out of place on a proper Alice in Chains’ album but proved how musically dexterous the group was. Jar’s commercial success, including their first Number One hit on the Mainstream Rock charts with “No Excuses”, was tarnished by Layne Staley’s developing drug habit, which made touring extremely difficult.
A year later, the band returned with Alice in Chains. Whether it can be blamed on Cantrell’s lack of inspired songs or Staley’s worsening health, Alice in Chains simply didn’t have the fire of the band’s previous efforts, resulting in a record with great moments but an overall weak focus. Further demonstrating trouble within the band, Cantrell took over lead vocals on several album tracks. With the group not touring, it appeared to most observers that the darkness Alice in Chains chronicled was close to swallowing them whole.
Despite the band’s continued success, they stayed off the road, which fueled speculation that Staley was mired in heroin addiction. Later that year, Staley did give a few concerts as part of the Gacy Bunch, a Seattle supergroup also featuring Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, the Screaming Trees’ Barrett Martin, and John Saunders. The group subsequently renamed itself Mad Season and released Above in early 1995. Later that year, Alice in Chains re-emerged with an eponymous third album, which debuted at Number One on the American charts. Again, the band chose not to tour, which launched yet another round of speculation that band was suffering from various addictions and were on the verge of disbanding. The group did give one concert - their first in three years - in 1996, performing for an episode of MTV Unplugged, which was released as an album that summer. Despite its success, the album did nothing to dispel doubts about the group’s future and neither did Cantrell’s solo album, Boggy Depot, in 1998.
Cantrell basically released Boggy Depot because he couldn’t get Staley to work, but its very existence - and the presence of Inez and Kinney on the record, not to mention Alice producer Toby Wright - seemed to confirm that the group was on moratorium at best, defunct at worst. Staley, for his part, stayed quiet, conceding his spot on Mad Season’s second album to Screaming Trees’ singer Mark Lanegan. In 1999, Sony put together a three-disc Alice in Chains box set, Music Bank, divided between the group’s best work and assorted rarities. At the turn of the new millennium, Columbia Records issued Live, which plucked material from bootlegs, demos, and festival shows covering the years 1990, 1993, and 1996.
A ten-track best-of set, Greatest Hits, appeared in July 2001. With no sign of the group reclaiming their spot atop the alt-metal heap (and such copycat acts as Godsmack, Days of the New, Puddle of Mudd, and Creed taking the Alice in Chains formula to the top of the charts), Cantrell completed his sophomore solo effort, Degradation Trip, in 2002. But just two months before the album’s release, in April 2002, the news that every Alice in Chains fan had been fearing for years had finally come to pass - Layne Staley was found dead due to a lethal overdose of cocaine and heroin. Although understandably grief-stricken, Cantrell launched his solo album’s supporting tour according to schedule, opting to open shows in the summer for another Alice in Chains-influenced band, Nickelback. Alice in Chains spent the next few years in limbo, eventually reuniting in 2005 for a benefit show with Damageplan vocalist Pat Lachman filling in for the deceased Staley. After rotating through a handful of different singers, the group eventually settled on Comes with the Fall vocalist William DuVall, who appeared on the group’s 2009 comeback record Black Gives Way to Blue.
The new Alice in Chains’ album Black Gives Way To Blue (2009) is the sound of a new beginning of a legendary band returning to life. Right from the album’s powerful and deeply meaningful opener “All Secrets Known” through its redemptive closing title track, Black Gives Way to Blue, the first new Alice in Chains album in more than fourteen years, is not just another rock reunion, but something far more inspiring. Alice in Chains in the present tense. No replacements. No substitutions. It does no disrespect to the enduring memory of Alice in Chains’ late, great lead singer Layne Staley, to say that for all that he brought to the group’s music in his lifetime, Alice in Chains always was, and always will be, very much a band.
So after taking a more than respectful break to mourn the loss of their brother and band mate - to heal and explore music individually - the surviving members of Alice in Chains, Jerry Cantrell, drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Inez, gradually began to make music again. The band came together for the first time in 2005 to take part in a benefit for the victims of the tsunami in Indonesia. The following year, Cantrell, Kinney and Inez decided that the time was right for Alice in Chains to reclaim its legacy again on tour. They did so with the help of a new guitarist and vocalist William DuVall, a gifted singer and player in his own right from Atlanta who previously worked with Neon Christ, Comes with the Fall, and as part of Jerry Cantrell’s touring band. As live audiences discovered, DuVall brings a sound and stage presence all his own. Yet when DuVall and Cantrell blend their voices - as Cantrell and Staley did so often - there could be little doubt that the spirit of Alice in Chains was once again alive and well.
Black Gives Way to Blue is the next step for a group that over the course of their career earned multiple Grammy nominations and sold more than 19 million albums worldwide and achieved eleven Top Ten singles. At the same time, the album offers the full, bracing impact of Alice in Chains - a band that kept heavy rock exciting at the dawn of the Nineties and helped set the stage for an even grungier Seattle sound - still clearly firing on all cylinders. Recording on Black Gives Way to Blue began in October of 2008 at Dave Grohl’s Studio 606 in Northridge and finished at Henson Studios in Hollywood. The band produced the album with Nick Raskulinecz, whose past credits include Foo Fighters and Rush.
Black Gives Way to Blue combines some classic Alice in Chains textures with a renewed sense of energy and possibility, from the epic and fantastically electric rocker “A Looking in View” to the exquisite and romantic ballad “Your Decision” to the album’s stunning first single “Check My Brain”, a throbbing rocker in which a band associated with the Pacific Northwest makes a wry and witty observation on working and living in California. Through Black Gives Way to Blue, there is a deep sense of the unique life that this band has lived, of “Lesson Learned”, to borrow the title of another standout track. In the end, the album offers a kind of shared group autobiography by a band that has survived so much. Together, they are in a way “Last of My Kind”, to use the title of another album highlight penned by Jerry Cantrell - long a dominant songwriter within Alice in Chains - with lyrics from DuVall.
“Imitations are pale,” DuVall and Cantrell sing together on Black Gives Way to Blue,” a brand new Alice in Chains’ classic that really has it all-the brooding hurt, the brute force and the beautiful introspection. Listen closely to Black Gives Way to Blue, and you’ll know right away this is Alice in Chains.
On The Devil Put
Dinosaurs Here (2013), Alice in
Chains proves that grunge fossils can still churn out slithery menace. It’s
the band’s second LP since the 2002 death of singer Layne Staley, and though
new vocalist William DuVall doesn’t have his predecessor’s talent for shaping
Seattle sludge into molten-dread anthems, founder Jerry Cantrell’s expressively
torpid guitar steps up to become its own kind of lead voice, chugging mordantly
on “Hollow” and wailing like My Bloody Valentine on “Pretty Done.” Standout
cut: the seven-minute “Phantom Limb,”
which evokes Staley’s memory with stomping survivor’s pride.