As we begin the onslaught of grunge music today, we have who I consider to be perhaps the most interesting and unique of all of these bands with the debut album from Alice in Chains, “Facelift”. A great kickoff to this evolution of rock music, “Facelift” is rated #8 on loudwire.com’s Top 10 Grunge Albums of All Time.
Even though lead guitarist Jerry Cantrell was and still is the primary creative force within Alice in Chains, any discussion on this band, at least for me, has to start with lead vocalist Layne Staley. Even as he rapidly was consumed by an ultimately fatal heroin addiction, the tone and sound of his voice is like no other I have ever heard. The closest by comparison was hearing young Ozzy with Black Sabbath, as when I hear Staley sing, it is the voice of darkness and evil. As much of grunge music focused on the pain and challenges of daily life, no voice better reflected this agony than Staley. And as an amazing compliment, Cantrell almost always adds in a haunting harmony vocal that further enriches the sound of the band.
From the first notes of the sadly prophetic “We Die Young”, the mix of Cantrell’s guitar and Staley’s growl is intoxicating. Their most visible hit from this first album comes next, “Man in the Box”. I read a great description of grunge recently. It stated that Metallica took Black Sabbath and sped it up, and grunge took that intensity and slowed it back down, and this song is a perfect example of that. Almost funky and slowly pounding, Staley is in full force describing the pain of the day. I know this will shock you, but I also read that he indicated he was very high when he wrote this song. This has to be one of the best Alice in Chains songs ever, and I think it is the most complete song on this record.
The slow jam grinds on with “Sea of Sorrow”, “Bleed the Freak” and “I Can’t Remember” all emit the same darkness and terrifying rhythm, with Layne front and center weaving around Cantrell’s riffs and chords. “Love, Hate, Love” is actually Cantrell’s favorite song on this album, although there are others I like better. Probably my other favorite track on this album is the filthy song “It Ain’t Like That”. It is just so raw and has a great opening riff, and their harmony vocal pairing on this song is outstanding.
“Sunshine” has another great plodding riff, and “Put You Down” even has some hint of Guns N’ Roses. There are definitely some similarities between Axl Rose in his low register and the wicked zombie vocals of Layne Staley. One last song I will cite is “I Know Somethin (Bout You)”, which opens like “The Crunge” from Led Zeppelin. Eventually, the cutting riffs from Cantrell take over and we have another intense rocker, representative of every great song on this album.
There will be more to come from grunge and Alice in Chains as we are just getting started here, but this band absolutely dropped a monster with this first release. A lot to look forward to over the coming years…