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Music Over 40: Alice In Chains

Updated on February 6, 2013

When we think of the great Alice's in history, we can logically put Alice In Wonderland, Alice from the Brady Bunch and Alice Cooper in that category.

Then, there's Alice In Chains. The layered gloom of Layne Staley's and Jerry Cantrell's alternating and harmony vocals, the detuned guitars, that underlying hint of Black Sabbath and heroin chic all merge to form a musical vision worthy of the great Alice's.

Alice In Chains are the poster children of grunge. The epitomized the musical movement by their sound and the angst by the lifestyles led by some of its members (most notably, Layne Staley and original bassist Michael Starr).

They were a bit too heavy, much like Soundgarden, to be the darlings of the movement. Still, they had plenty of popular songs, Man In The Box, Sea Of Sorrow, Would, Rooster, Them Bones, Heaven Beside You and No Excuses to name but a few.

For those of us who like our music to be a bit dark and disturbed, there was no substitute.

Much like The Doors twenty five years before, they took trips down back alleys, dark basements and unlit roads that many couldn't comprehend. The lyrics could be painfully raw, many times about the hell of drug addiction, but they were always incisive and thought provoking.

For many, the lasting image of Alice In Chains will be the unplugged show that was filmed in April of 1996. Layne seated and stoic, facial stubble, curly tinted hair and heavily lidded eyes, singing with very little motion or emotion. The performance has been hailed as a staple of MTV's Unplugged series and it is hard to argue.

While Alice In Chains could bring the thunder, what set them apart was their knack for writing dark, yet melodic, acoustic songs. Songs like Nutshell, Right Turn, Am I Inside and No Excuses are startling in their structure and depth.

Jerry Cantrell, ever the glue, keeps the proceedings together. Tight guitar playing, unforgettable harmony vocals and his songwriting chops always got your attention. The understated rhythm section of Sean Kinney and Michael Starr (later Michael Inez) always held down the bottom end.

There is fantastic live video on Youtube of the band at their prime in the early nineties. Check out the black and white video for an electric version of Bleed the Freak from Seattle in 1990.

Both the albums Facelift and Dirt are worth a long listen for anyone who has never heard, skipped or has simply forgotten.

Sadly, Layne followed the dark path that claimed grunge contemporaries Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) and Andrew Wood (Mother Love Bone), as heroin claimed his life in 2002. Michael Starr, who was with him the day before, and was the last person to have seen him alive, followed in 2004.

It is sometimes been said that great art is borne of great pain and I think Layne, like so many before him, was unable to bear the pain.

Yes, Nirvana was the MTV darling and Kurt Cobain its elected King ( alas, a cross too much for him to bear, as well). Pearl Jam has turned a landmark debut, mixed in with some solid releases and few questionable ones into a twenty year career and their own Sirius XM channel.

But give me Alice In Chains any day of the week and twice on Sunday. For some reason, all that doom and gloom still brings a smile to my face today.


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