The Seattle music scene of the early 90s has been well-documented for pioneering the "grunge" sound...that raw, crunchy noise that broke past the by-then passe heavy metal phase. Eschewing big hair and makeup for flannel, combat boots and mop-tops, hard rock had new gods, albeit somewhat reluctant ones. Nirvana got the press and bittersweet ending, Pearl Jam tried their hardest to deny their stardom and Soundgarden launched spin-off bands. Alice in Chains is the band that always feels forgotten to me, but I found them one of the best of the era.
Anchored by the nasal snarl of front man Layne Staley and man-behind-the-music Jerry Cantrell, AiC kept their sound dark and sinister, more in tune with the "heavy" side of metal with occasional hints of country and acoustic sensibility. They aren't for everyone and they didn't get the pop love of those other bands, but they still contributed to a much-needed musical revolution.
Facelift - B-
Starts strong, but gets redundant in the latter half. Still, the first six tracks, including "Man in the Box" and "Sea of Sorrow" are early essentials
Sap - C
The first of two EPs with a more experimental, "softer" sound. Only "Got Me Wrong" stands out among the four tracks. Listen for Chris Cornell on "Right Turn."
Dirt - A-
Probably the most definitive and well-known AiC album is filled with tunes about drug addiction, anger, suicidal thoughts and my favorite track, "Rooster." See also "Down in a Hole," "Angry Chair" and "Would?"
Jar of Flies - A
AiC's best album is their second EP of slower acoustic tracks, famously written and recorded in one week. You didn't have to be a fan to appreciate chart-topper "No Excuses," epic and symphonic "I Stay Away" or haunting "Nutshell." Short, sweet and nearly perfect, Flies rates as one of my favorite albums.
Alice in Chains - B-
Layne Staley's recurring battle with heroin addiction delayed new material for a couple years and this self-titled album (their last all-new studio release) tries to reclaim their metal roots. It has a few great tunes (opener "Grind," Cantrell-sung "Heaven Beside You" and "God Am" really work) mixed with clunkers.
Unplugged - A-
Appearing on the popular MTV acoustic show probably seemed unlikely for this band, but the set proved just how graceful their music could be, even previous "hard rock" tunes. Watch the actual show to see Staley visibly worn but still able to mesmerize in one of his last appearances.
Music Bank and Nothing Safe - B
Staley's addiction and personal life problems made him a recluse before his overdose in 2002. He recorded a couple new tracks for box set Music Bank, preceded by "sampler" Nothing Safe. A three CD (and one multimedia) compilation of hit tracks, early demos and unreleased recordings...it's mostly for the purist.
Live - C
Gathering live tracks from shows throughout the 90s, this disc is surprisingly spare of "classic" AiC songs.
Cantrell has recorded two solo albums and the band is "reuniting" with a new lead singer to release a new album in late September. I'm intrigued and concerned at the same time. The new decade/century hasn't been good to the grunge figureheads of the past, but I'll give it a listen all the same.