With the recent launch of a brand spanking new year, what better time than January to address fresh starts. So, are you ready for this? After a fourteen-year absence, Alice in Chains are back. Yep, you heard right. The band has reunited and hits the road in 2009, beginning in February with a main stage slot on Australia’s Soundwave Festival
. But wait, there’s more. According to Jerry Cantrell, the band’s co-founder, Alice in Chains is currently back in the studio cutting an album of all new material. The album, the first studio recording since their self-titled release in 1995, is expected to drop sometime this year as well. Although not duly noted here, exclamation marks abound at the news.
As one of the most prominent of the Seattle grunge bands to emerge from the early ‘90s, Alice in Chains was more metal than many of their contemporaries of that period. Known for their thick, ominous sound and bleak subject matter, AIC balanced the heavy riffing of rock with the gloomy melodies of post-punk and incorporated haunting acoustic elements as well. They were hard enough for metal fans, somber enough to place them at the forefront of the grunge movement, which earned them international fame along with bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden.
Alice in Chains was formed in Seattle, Washington, in 1987 by lead vocalist Layne Staley and guitarist/vocalist Jerry Cantrell. Although he and Staley had equal share in lyric writing, Cantrell wrote or co-wrote most of AIC’s music. The AIC lineup also included drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Starr. Signed to Columbia Records in 1989 as a heavy metal act, AIC released their debut album Facelift
in August of 1990. The album produced the hit single “Man in the Box”. The group supported the album by opening for Van Halen, Poison and Iggy Pop. Facelift
was a critical success and would help establish an audience for grunge and alternative rock.
Just prior to the release of the band’s sophomore album, the incessantly foreboding Dirt
, Seattle burst onto the music scene with the surprise success of Nirvana’s Nevermind
. From that point on, Alice in Chains were marketed as an alternative band instead of a metal act. Dirt
, with its heavy, guitar-driven sound, pushed the band to triple platinum status with such acerbic and intimate tracks as “Angry Chair”, “Rooster”, and “Would?”, a song written by Cantrell to honor the memory of Andrew Wood who died of a heroin overdose a few years earlier. Wood was the lead singer of Mother Love Bone, yet another band to come out of the burgeoning Seattle music scene. The song appears on the soundtrack for the 1992 Cameron Crowe film Singles
in which AIC made a cameo appearance. The band also released the EP Sap
that same year.
Following the release of Dirt
, AIC’s lineup changed when Starr left the band to spend more time with his family. He was replaced by Ozzy Osbourne bassist Mike Inez and the band hit the road in 1993 as part of the third Lollapalooza tour, sharing the stage with acts such as Primus, Tool and Rage Against the Machine. It would be the last major tour for Staley.
Layne Staley’s drug addiction was no secret. He often wrote about heroin. In an interview with Rolling Stone
magazine, he addressed how his drug use influenced his lyrics. “I wrote about drugs, and I didn’t think I was being unsafe or careless by writing about them,” he said at the time. “Here’s how my thinking pattern went: When I tried drugs, they were (expletive) great, and they worked for me for years, and now they’re turning against me--and now I’m walking through hell, and this sucks.”
Nineteen ninety-four saw the release of the EP Jar of Flies
with its more mellow acoustic arrangements punctuated by Cantrell’s electric guitar riffs. It included the exquisite number “Nutshell”. Jar of Flies
would be the first EP to debut at number one in Billboard
chart history. The following year, despite Staley’s steadily deteriorating condition, AIC forged ahead to record a new album. Alice in Chains
also debuted at number one on the Billboard
200, but the band chose not to tour in support of the release. It was widely believed that the increasingly more reclusive Staley was completely mired in his heroin addiction by this point, forcing the band to go on hiatus. He would surface from time to time though, dabbling on stage with friends from other Seattle bands and even participated with AIC in an episode of the all-acoustic MTV Unplugged
in April of 1996. Although visibly weak and stopping the show at one point when he forgot the lyrics to “Sludge Factory”, the MTV performance was breathtaking. Later that year, Staley’s world was rocked by the death of Demri Parrott, the love of his life, who died from an inflamed heart due to an unclean needle. He was put on a suicide watch in the time immediately following Parrott’s passing. Her death sent Staley into a freefall.
Staley and Cantrell, MTV Unplugged
Despite tensions within the group, Staley’s bandmates supported their friend. Says Cantrell, “We rode the good times together, and we stuck together through the hard times. We never stabbed each other in the back and spilled our guts…”.
Staley kept a low profile until he attended the Grammy Awards in 1997 with the other members of AIC after “Again” from the Alice in Chains
album was nominated for “Best Hard Rock Performance”. Then in 1998, he reunited with the band to record two new songs that were released the following year on the box set Music Bank
. Jerry Cantrell also cut a solo album around this same time which fueled speculation that AIC had disbanded when in truth, the guitarist basically released the album because he couldn’t get Staley to work anymore. The band had stagnated, plagued, as they were, by extended inactivity. Cantrell completed a second solo effort in 2002, but just before the album’s release came word that every AIC fan had been dreading.
As one of the most distinctive voices in all of music, Layne Staley had battled addiction for a decade and succumbed to a lethal speedball (a mixture of cocaine and heroin) in early April 2002. His body was discovered later on that month. He died alone, on his couch. Not far from where he lay was some cocaine, a couple crack pipes and other various drug paraphernalia. After an autopsy positively identified him, Staley’s date of death was determined to be April 5, 2002, exactly eight years to the day Kurt Cobain took his own life. The Seattle grunge movement, with all its unrealized potential, crashed and burned with the loss of its icons.
So, here we are, some seven years later, talking about Alice in Chains once more. They, of such rich musical heritage, are poised for phase two of their career after what was meant as a one-shot deal, a benefit concert for the 2005 tsunami victims, resulted in the band reuniting. Atlanta singer William DuVall, previously part of the touring band for Cantrell's last solo album, will serve as a stand-in for Staley. Cantrell sees it a natural evolution. The benefit show led to the band just hanging out, jamming, which led to some more touring, which inspired them to write the new material they’re currently recording. ‘‘This chapter is equally as important as any chapter in the book on Alice,'' Cantrell says. ‘‘This is about living. It was, of course, a crushing loss to lose our best friend and partner. But it's a common human experience. What's important in life is when you get thrown off the proverbial horse, after you're done nursing your injuries, it's time to get up and continue to live.''
Australia’s Soundwave Festival
kicks off in Brisbane on Saturday, February 21st and wraps in Perth on Monday, March 2nd. Alice in Chains will be performing along with Nine Inch Nails, Underoath, Anberlin, and a host of other bands from various genres like metal, hardcore, punk rock, pop punk and alternative rock. As of this writing, there is no news of any additional tour dates, but keep your fingers crossed.
Jerry Cantrell, 2008