Thursday, 11 February 2016

Alphabetical Discovery - Week A, Day Six: Alice In Chains

It wouldn't be a controversial comment to say that Alice In Chains are metal. It may be more controversial to say that they are perhaps one of the few bands that are almost universally lauded. I don't know of many people who dislike the band; there are those who are most likely indifferent, or haven't really given them a chance, but across the board they seem to appeal - even their recent albums with 'new' vocalist William DuVall - to a wide array of listeners.

Formed in Seattle, Washington in 1987, the band released three full-lengths in the 90's with the incredible Layne Staley - Facelift (1990), Dirt (1992) and Alice in Chains (1995) - alongside the less aggressive and more vulnerable Jar of Flies EP in 1994. Following the tragic of death of heroin-addict Layne Staley the band disbanded.  Fuzzy, gruff and groovy, they were simultaneously doomy, melancholic and introspective. 'Love Hate Love', for example, from debut album Facelift, is a downcast explosion of slow and crushing doom; it creeps slowly into life as Staley's pained vocals soar and writhe, it has a sort of Saint Vitus feel, and the guitars slither and crawl beneath. Conversely, on the same record, is 'I Know Somethin  (Bout You)', a funky romp of grooves, key changes, bluesy bass exploration, stoner-esque riffs and rich vocal harmonies. 'Head Creeps' from the self-titled is similar: a flangy, acid trip groove seeps beneath deranged spacey vocals.  

There's always an intense aggression and sense of self-directed anger most of their songs, even the more rock based tracks; Staley's and Cantrell's lyrics are full of bitterness, melancholy and general gloom. They're an emotional and vulnerable band, who (cliche) wear their hearts on their sleeves. It's what makes their music appealing; it's down-to-earth and real; as much as we like songs about three-headed dragons battling gold-plated dragon slayers on mountains made of skulls, or songs about the almighty malevolence of Satan, sometimes the most hard-hitting songs are those that are about boring old personal experiences. It's what these 'wrongly pigeon-holed as grunge' bands (Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden) do so well, and it's part of the reason they're so popular. When you combine this - in Alice in Chains case - with incredible song-writing, diverse and interesting riffing, and a generally powerful sound, you've on to something special. To go from the desperately sad 'Rotten Apple' to 'Sludge Factory' is why they're such a great band ('Sludge Factory' is, with much deliberation, my favourite AiC song: The monstrously swampy and crunchingly down-tuned guitars layered beneath snaking vocal harmonies, the echoing reverb of the bass that clangs with menace, and the breakdown of the song towards the end is great. The live unplugged version is incredible to: the vocals are pitch perfect.

And there are plenty of riffs stored away in their metal toolbox. 'Them Bones' from Dirt opens with crunchy heaviness that slams the album in to gear from the get go.  'Rooster' is a semi-ballad mixed with wavering Sabbath riffs and fuzz aplenty. 'Junkhead' is a pessimistic and dark, spiraling in to a pit of self-loathing and lyrics about the evils of addiction, Their sound is part Type-O Negative, part Melvins, part Sabbath and part Kyuss, yet Alice in Chains are completely their own band. There are just too many great songs and too many great moments to talk of and here's just not enough time. 

They returned in 2009, with the charismatic vocal powerhouse William DuVall alongside guitarist, songwriter, vocalist and blonde-haired master Jerry Cantrell, with the excellent Black Gives Way to Blue and The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here in 2013. The sound on these albums is, perhaps, even heavier than on their previous recordings. The sound of songs such as 'Stone' and 'Last Of My Kind' is suffocating. The entire tone - credit to the production - is completely monstrous. There are just too many incredible songs and not enough hours in the day to give them to the time they deserve to write of them. Certainly one of the most consistent bands in music today. 

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