1994 begins with the next release from Alice In Chains. This is actually an EP (Extended Play) vs. a full album, but it contains seven songs, several of which were very successful for the band. It is a notable departure from their last two records, with most of the songs based heavily in an acoustic sound from Jerry Cantrell’s guitar. There are some similar themes, as the darkness and prevailing sadness that was also reflected by Layne Staley’s ongoing battle with heroin addiction continuing to work its way into the music. Cantrell remains the primary creative influence, but even with his decline into deeper addiction, Staley assumed a larger role with each release in creating the lyrical content.
The first two tracks are particularly dark and brooding; there is no explosive opening to this record. That said, it is eye-opening to hear this softer side of the band, particularly with Staley’s vocals, and this entire record gives us a much barer view of his ability as a performer, and sadly one of the last glimpses we would get.
The next two songs were the hits of the record. “I Stay Away” sounds more like classic Alice In Chains, with the exception of a dramatic string arrangement that surrounds the build of the song. “No Excuses” is the more upbeat of the two, and an excellent example of the evolution of this band. The harmony vocals between Staley and Cantrell are prevalent throughout this entire album, but never more compelling than they are on this track. My former roommate Matt, who was a professional musician whose tastes leaned much more to funk and jazz, bought this CD specifically because he loved the unusual harmonies on this song.
“Whale & Wasp” is a unique guitar track, and the repeating guitar drone is very representative of the call of a whale. Cantrell proves his versatility as a musician as well as showing he is able to create great music on his own. “Don’t Follow” is one last really transparent vocal performance by Cantrell and Staley, and the overwhelming sentiment of loss bleeds out on this track. The final song is “Swing on This”, and yes, it actually is a variant of a swing tune. Starting off with a standup-sounding bass line from Mike Inez, you hear a lot of life and spirit from a band that is fighting inner demons.
Two last thoughts on this record. The successfully experimental sound of this EP reminds me of what Led Zeppelin did with their third record, with the insertion of acoustic and softer sounds as a contrast to the colossal blitz of their previous releases. It would have been really remarkable to see what this band, particularly the duo of Cantrell and Staley could have created with health and time. Unfortunately, that was not the destiny for Alice In Chains. They would release one more album, but never toured or recorded again after that point, as Staley slowly wasted away before finally losing his endless struggle with addiction in 2002. His story of isolation, depression and addiction is one of the most drawn-out and extended tragedies in rock and roll. Family, friends and peers all tried endlessly to get him help, but there was no changing this course. At first, I dismissed Cantrell’s resurrection of the band with a new vocalist, as I struggled to envision anyone but Layne Staley singing these songs. However, this experience has helped me appreciate how much personal creative ownership Cantrell has for this catalog, and I now applaud him for moving forward with multiple albums and tours as he also continues to pay tribute to Staley at every turn. Despite several years of inactivity leading up to Staley’s death, Cantrell never gave up on him and never made a public scene of this very private issue. I respect the friendship and support they all offered, standing by their mate to the end.