Part 3: Breaking the Chains

Benin City

Part 3: Breaking the Chains

In a five month period from September 1993 – January 1994, three of alternative rocks biggest bands each released material that created a peak period the genre in the 1990’s. After looking at Nirvana’s In Utero and Pearl Jam’s Vs., John Howell’s third and final part of the series takes a look at Alice in Chains and their 1994 E.P, Jar of Flies. Written and recorded in the span of a week, Jar of Flies is the story of four men with the world at their feet, and their finger on the self destruct button.

Part 3: Breaking the Chains

The adage, “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” could unsympathetically sum up Alice in Chains. Hailing from Seattle, Washington, AIC were interminably living in the shadows of their native cohorts Nirvana and Pearl Jam.  Although they achieved commercial success with their first two albums, Facelift (1990) and Dirt (1992), it was not on the scale of their counterparts. Everything changed with Jar of Flies.

The band came to attention on a world stage with their second single from Facelift, Man in the Box.  Heavy rotation of the song on MTV helped sales of the album reach over half a million copies. Initially the group struggled to find an audience; too rock for metal, too metal for rock but they were onto something.

Two years on and ‘grunge’ had exploded into the mainstream. Released in September 1992, their sophomore effort Dirt sold five million copies and is argued by some to be the finest work by the band. Its dark subject matter reflected the mindset of the band – lead singer Layne Stayley was a 25 year old heroin addict, central songwriter and guitarist Jerry Cantrell suffered with severe depression and alcohol abuse, and both drummer Sean Kinney and original bassist Mike Starr were also battling alcoholism. Starr left the band after recording Dirt due to his problem with substances, and died in 2011 aged 44 of a prescription-drug overdose.

Songs such as Down in a Hole, Sickman, Hate to Feel and Junkman were anything but covert in their messages; It reflected the nature of the group  explicit and foreboding.  Alice in Chains was a band falling apart as they became bigger and better. Given a headline slot at Lollapalooza Festival in the summer of 1993 was meant to be the commencement of their ascent to the very top. It was instead the last major tour they played with Stayley.

Exhausted from the touring, the foursome returned to Seattle to discover they were homeless, evicted for skipping rent. With nowhere to go and nothing to do, they entered a studio in September 1993 to sleep, eat and perhaps make music.  At the time of recording Jar of Flies, alternative rock had reached its zenith with releases from The Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana and Pearl Jam all coming over the course of that summer.

What was created became and still is the most personal of the Alice in Chains catalogue – a cruel, dark but stunning work, so unerringly truthful that it’s resonated years since its recording due to the events that would ultimately succeed it.

The band had experimented with acoustic EP’s before; Sap, released in April 1992, was quietly received but has grown in stature over time. Originally meant to be a recording of demos for their sophomore LP, Sap became the sign of a group confident to release material that did not at the time reflect their fan base or genre. It received no promotion upon release “so as the real Alice fans could find it” according to Cantrell.

18 months on though and Alice in Chains had found a world stage. Their next move was anticipated, but Jar of Flies was never meant to be heard.  It was just four friends making music just for them. Columbia records discovered the recordings, and liked them so much they decided to release it. Perhaps it is that fact which makes the music even more personal and personable there was no pressure to make a hit, create mixes or clean up the sound; what was heard is what the band wanted you to hear.

Everybody had a role to play. Mike Inez’ bass comes to the fore and breathes life throughout, especially prominent on the opener Rotten Apple. It was his first recording with the band and has become his most recognizable work.

Nutshell, the EP’s second track, has gone onto become one of the most endearing pieces the group ever wrote. The beautiful strumming of Cantrell’s guitar lets Stayley’s words come to the fore. It is the sound of a twenty six year old star realising that he has the world at his feet, and the needle in his arm; “If I can’t be my own, I’d feel better dead”.

If Nutshell is the story of Stayley and Cantrell falling apart, No Excuses is the coming together of the two. Their biggest hit, No Excuses is drummer Sean Kinney’s greatest work and Cantrell’s soft riff lends itself to his and Stayley’s unforgettable harmonies. Both alluded to the lyrics as a story of the closeness and love they have for each other, even through the most difficult of times; “You my friend, I will defend and if we change, well I love you anyway”.  The bluesy Don’t Follow and the instrumental Whale & Wasp provide different sides of a band undaunted to show the world what they can do.

They weren’t metal, grunge, or alternative rock. They were Alice in Chains. Jar of Flies represents and captures that essence. Knowing that makes the story of Alice in Chains even more regretful.

Jar of Flies was released January 25th 1994. It became the first EP in music history to debut at no.1 on the American charts, and hit the top five in the UK.  It went on to sell 4 million copies.

Instead of touring however, the band did nothing. Stayley entered into rehab for heroin addiction but it failed to help, as it would every time he tried to kick the dependence that gripped his mind and body. He went on to join super-group Mad Season, who released a solitary album, Above, in early 1995. At their album launch gig, the singer had lost weight and wore gloves to hide the injection marks in between his fingers, the last place an addict goes to inject.

Alice in Chains regrouped in late 1995 to release their self titled third album. Its sensibilities lied away from ‘grunge’ or metal, and focused on improving the sound featured on Jar of Flies. Again, it shot to number 1 in the US charts, and again the band opted not to tour due to the poor mental and physical state of its members, particularly Stayley. It was the last studio album made that the front man featured on.

1996 saw the last major performance of the band on MTV Unplugged. Both Nirvana and Pearl Jam gave historic showings at their Unplugged sessions, and AIC were no different. Upon its initial airing fans were shocked at Layne’s thin, pale look, again with gloves on his hands and colour in his hair. The fact that it is now years on the last time Stayley and the group played a full set on camera means it has gained a cult following and is considered in retrospect the final stand of a fading man.

Over the next six years rumours persisted that the band would release new material but only two new songs surfaced for their 1999 box set compilation, Music Bank. Stayley had become a recluse and was never seen in public. His abuse and depression worsened as his long time fiancée died from the effects of heroin use. Cantrell released critically acclaimed solo material featuring both Inez and Kinney.

Inevitably, on April 19th 2002, Stayley’s body was found in his apartment, rotting in the dark with only a dimly lit television for light.  He had been sitting there decomposing for two weeks. He died of a drug overdose. His work in Alice in Chains and beyond has been re-evaluated in the years since and many like me who found the band after his death are able to keep his memory alive through the music made.

Cantrell, Inez and Kinney still continue under the moniker but with a new singer, William Duvall. Their musical rebirth has been critically acclaimed with two commercially successful albums but to some Alice in Chains will always be Stayley and Cantrell. It is retrospect that gives Jar of Flies its greatest strength.

At the time it was the coming of a band from out of the shadows of their counterparts and into a world of their own. We know now it marked the beginning of the end. Jar of Flies holds a special place in fans hearts for its boldness, its beauty and its brutal honesty.

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride may be true, but sometimes the bridesmaid is more beautiful than the bride.