Alice In Chains – Jar of Flies – by Killian Laher
In the early to mid-nineties, it didn’t get much cooler than American grunge bands as far as I was concerned. It felt like classic rock but with an a edgy, metallic twist, along with some great singers. Alice In Chains seemed darker. The name, first of all, seemed to hark back to late eighties goth bands. Frontman Layne Staley looked like a demented troll with his short hair, black shades and goatee beard. That was before he opened his mouth. He sang songs like Them Bones and Would? in a tortured roar that sounded like it came from the bottom of his soul. Accompanying it came Jerry Cantrell’s heavy, Black Sabbath-y slabs of guitar noise and occasionally a twisted vocal harmony. These harmonies were not those of your parents’ artists like Simon and Garfunkel, more a glorious expression of shared pain.
The band used troubling imagery, both in videos where Them Bones featured startling close ups of insects, drug references in the lyrics of Junkhead and God Smack to name just two, and album covers such as Dirt which featured a body in the sand, and Jar of Flies which mirrored the title. Hearing the merest snatch of No Excuses on an MTV ad for the latter EP convinced me I had to have it.
As far as Alice In Chains goes, this is not particularly representative. Guitar distortion was set to zero, instead we got a series of moody soundscapes, typified by opening track Rotten Apple, made up largely of Cantrell’s dark rumblings on guitar and his and Staley’s skewed harmonies. Nutshell, which follows, goes full acoustic, in an ‘unplugged’ style which was very popular at the time (they would go on to record a memorable MTV Unplugged set). Here Staley inhabits the stripped down music with a great vocal, concluding “if I can’t be on my own I’d be better dead”.
But it was No Excuses which was the centrepiece. Opening with Sean Kinney’s dry, sprightly drumming, Staley and Cantrell’s voices mix seamlessly, leading to a soaring chorus, not to mention a thrilling guitar solo.
It didn’t all work, final track Swing On This attempts a jazz type song but doesn’t really work. Mood piece Whale and Wasp fares way better, an instrumental that broods perfectly, while ballad Don’t Follow mixes the Rolling Stones with Guns ‘n’ Roses.
A band unafraid of ugliness, it cost them two original members, both now dead. None of this would be particularly noteworthy without Jerry Cantrell and Layne Staley’s extraordinary voices, the pair taking a very different approach to harmonies than most.