Alice in Chains: Lifting Faces Since 1990

The second the grimy opening riff from Alice in Chains’ “We Die Young” worms its way through your earholes, it’s impossible not to headbang like it’s 1990 – the year their debut gave rock music a much-appreciated Facelift. Sadly, the song became a painful reality when founding members Mike Starr and Layne Staley lost their drug addiction battles. If only the lyrics, “Take another hit / and bury your brother” weren’t so literal.

Alice in Chains is the one band metalheads agree on. Go ahead and check the comment sections if you don’t believe me. This stems from the fact that they bathed in the musical blood of the godfathers of heavy metal, Black Sabbath. One can’t help but get sucked into the void by “Bleed the Freak,” a deranged jingle that owes its nastiness to the one and only Tony Iommi. The chorus oozes with raw power. Vocalists today who spew indecipherable growls into a soaking wet microphone need to clear the hairballs from their throats and take careful notes. This is how you properly tap a vein with metal.

The uneasy creepiness of “Love Hate Love” harkens back to a timeless piece of doom called “Black Sabbath,” only instead of singing about the great Satan, Layne took a more personal approach. His eerie message to a “little girl” is more maniacal than Ozzy Osbourne’s haunting cries about a “figure in black.” Staley’s sick, malevolent words wouldn’t be out of place in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre:

“I want to peel the skin from your face
Before the real you lays to waste.”

These chilling comments are quite fitting, given the album title. Just as Leatherface is inseparable from his saw, Jerry Cantrell shares a similar bond with his axe. Sean Kinney and Starr expertly gave him the space he needed to enhance an already epic composition with one of his most impressive leads.

This sinister, moody albumisn’t just a Sabbath homage. “Put You Down” sears with unbridled energy and a foot-stomping groove that instantly sticks to the brain, begging to be played at every basement bash. The opening notes to the appropriately titled “Sunshine” couldn’t be more different than its demented predecessors. It’s the brightest section of the record, although something ominous slithers its way through the verses. I often wonder what happened to that “dude” after he got touched by the mother. It’s been 30 years. Where did he go? Has anyone heard from said dude? Is anyone else bothered by this? This song is actually about the death of Cantrell’s mother, but I never got that from it. I appreciate its poetic indirectness.

For whatever reason, Jerry decided to get funky as hell on the surprisingly uptempo “I Know Somethin (Bout You).” It’s one of their more jovial, unusual songs, in company with “Swing on This” from Jar of Flies. Where else will you hear the line, “Your gold key don’t fit my crapper”? Not on a Sabbath record, that’s for sure. If you ask me, this is the track they should have inserted the Eddie Murphy inspired “Sexual chocolate, baby!” line into. Tell me you can’t hear it.

“Sea of Sorrow” always had an ‘80s metal feel but with less spandex and more flannel. It’s badass and original enough to avoid ridicule. Honestly, it wouldn’t be out of place on a Mötley Crüe record, and that’s okay. They could have ditched the fade-out, which was (thankfully) fading away around this time. This thumping rocker would have benefited from a hard ending. They should have just slapped the unpolished demo version on the album, with its sexy, turned up piano parts, played brilliantly by the multi-talented Kinney. That guy never gets enough credit. I wonder if the explosive drum-hit after the line “You opened fire!” was a nod to AC/DC’s “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You).” What am I saying? Of course, it was. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of FIRE!

It’s evident the effect Facelift (and Dirt) had on ‘90s era metal such as Anthrax’s Sound of White Noise and Metallica’s Load. Despite what people think about the latter, there’s a definite grunge influence at play. I find it weird that fans were okay with Alice in Chains switching their style numerous times and not Metallica, but that’s a futile debate for another time. “It Ain’t Like That,” a song foaming at the mouth with diabolical riffs, should make every band shamefully jealous. Though to be fair, it does seem inspired by “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Neither song is worth listening to unless they are cranked to a window shattering volume.

A tune that needs no introduction, “Man in the Box,” is one I need a break from. I blame radio for constantly shoving my nose in its “spit” for 30 years. Great job neutering a song, guys. Even if it hadn’t been played to severe levels of nausea, I wouldn’t listen to it regularly. It’s too basic compared to their exceptionally diverse catalog. I’d sooner turn up the two weaker tracks on the album, “I Can’t Remember” and “Confusion,” which bury other bands’ best work in the dirt. However, it wields a power that other megahits do not. The lyrics are average, but the way Staley releases them from the deepest depths of his diaphragm forces the most casual metal fan to kneel and scream that exhausted cliché from Wayne’s World. Plus, Jerry Cantrell’s mouth works a talkbox better than Peter Frampton, and his solo has no business being that damn good. Show me the way, Jerry.

Like any great rock album, this doesn’t end without dusting the listener’s ears with a little ditty about cocaine. I believe Ozzy wrote a couple of those in his heyday. The shameless honesty that Staley dispenses in “Real Thing” is as brutal as the chest-rattling bass and drums dished out by Starr and Kinney. His unapologetic lyricism set the foundation for more close encounters with illegal substances, such as Dirt’s “Junkhead,” which was even darker and more authentic. Like so many greats before them, the drugs inspired until they damn near destroyed them all.

Make no bones about it, Alice in Chains set the bar higher than an eight ball with Facelift. As far as debuts, or metal albums in general, it’s rarely been matched. Many have tried, often too hard (*cough* Godsmack), and failed miserably. The significant part these musicians played in altering the landscape of metal cannot be overlooked, as well as the overwhelming acceptance by its notoriously unforgiving community. Staley’s influential, godlike vocal abilities can only be compared to his fellow grunge rocker, Chris Cornell. Something was definitely in the Seattle water back then, and we are all lucky to drink from its river.

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