ALICE In CHAINS: A 20 Year Reflection on the Final (Layne) Album…

Posted: January 25, 2016 in (All Things) CULTURE, MUSIC
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Yep, another of those ’20 year anniversary’ posts that I’ve done too many of here already.
But worth it for Alice in Chains, who remain one of my favorite acts in the world and whose 1995 album – the self-titled or ‘Dog’ album – is now two decades old.

I actually think the Dog album is very underrated even among AIC fans, who tend to rave about 1992’s Dirt album or 91’s breakthrough Facelift record and tend to neglect the 1995 release.

This record resonates for a combination of reasons. It was the last AIC album made with singer Layne Staley, who died in 2002, and therefore the last ‘proper’ AIC album of you’re inclined to look at it that way. It also displays AIC, I believe, at their most nuanced as songwriters. But more than anything else, it is just a great record, full of great music.

Track for track, it’s a terrific album – you simply couldn’t take tracks like ‘Sludge Factory’, ‘God Am’, ‘Shame in You’ and ‘Head Creeps’ and call it anything else. Yet, that being said, there has always been something wrong with the record too.

The problem with the album is that it maybe suffers from being too downbeat, almost casual. A number of songs feel frustratingly incomplete, as if they weren’t worked on for long enough and needed additional elements or developments. I always think how much better ‘Grind’ or ‘Nothin Song’ might’ve been had they been developed further instead of just repeating the same two parts over and over again.

Some bands work better with simple compositions and repetitive structures: Nirvana were masters at it, but they kept it amazingly tight and almost all of their songs were quite short and snappy. ‘Heaven Beside You’, on the other hand, goes on for over five minutes; which isn’t very dynamic if you’re playing a mid-tempo song with no real changes.

Coupled to this, a number of songs also go on for way too long, but not in the right way: there’s nothing wrong with a track going on a long time, provided the track has a varying, complex composition or goes in interesting directions (a classic example being Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’). But on this record, there are tracks that have no evolution or variation but nevertheless go on too long. The solos on ‘Over Now’ are an example of that.

‘Over Now’, which closes the album, is actually in essence a really good song built on a very cool riff; but it needs to be about two minutes shorter.

It always felt like the songs just needed tightening up, and the track lengths just needed to be cut down in places. Yet, on the other hand, the opposite is true of ‘So Close’, which is cool-as-fuck, but too short and ends pretty abruptly – when it could’ve been a much bigger track. The sense you really get from the album is that it is a collection of unfinished, sometimes even half-baked, compositions – which contain elements of genius, but are sometimes not fully realised. Which in itself is fascinating, but also a shame.

The only two tracks that feel like they’re perfectly measured and distilled are ‘God Am’ and ‘Shame in You’ – the rest either go on too long and lose their momentum or feel like partly unfinished ideas.

Whether the band, particularly given Layne’s troubles, was genuinely lacking the will or dynamism to record a more focused, tight album, or whether they were just distracted and laconic, is unclear. What’s remarkable though is that, given these issues, the basic quality of the songs still shines through so strongly. Even the one or two particularly low-key tracks nevertheless have good things in them that make me always wanted to listen to them and not hit skip.

And aside from that, there are four especially outstanding songs on the album: ‘Sludge Factory’, ‘God Am’, ‘Shame in You’ and ‘Head Creeps’, which are among the very best things AIC ever did.

‘Sludge Factory’, again, is fairly uncomplicated and it probably goes on for too long. The riff is as simple as they come, though the choruses feature more intricate guitar work. Yet it is a killer and is probably one of my three or four absolute favorite AIC tracks. Again, it shows AIC in unpretentious mode, being willing to settle for very simple composition and let Layne’s vocals and lyrics take the foreground. It’s also AIC at their coolest and most laconic. Layne’s lyrics are compelling from the first line on – “you insult me in my house/you’re forgiven this time”, his vocal is laid-back and terrific, while the layering on the choruses is also mesmerising, with the Layne/Cantell dual dynamic and Cantrell’s delicate guitar work creating compulsive listening.

 
 

 

The stripped down version of ‘Sludge Factory’ they did in their MTV Unplugged set further displays how good this song is and allows Layne’s vocals to shine even more lucidly. This unexpected version of ‘Sludge Factory’ was in fact the best thing in the unplugged set, which I personally thought was a lackluster performance overall.

‘Head Creeps’ is a thing of genius. The vocal melodies are great on the verses and knock-out on the choruses, and yet even more compelling on the bridges, and the song flows along for almost 7 minutes without losing momentum.

‘Shame In You’ is utterly, utterly beautiful; one of the most – possibly the most – unashamedly beautiful things AIC ever did. Layne’s syrupy sweet vocals are unbelievable, and combining with Cantrell’s tones creates an effect almost too potent to be contained within the song.

However much people may love AIC for metal or for hard rock, the argument can be made that their real ‘forte’ is actually heartbreaking compositions like this one, which is right up there ‘Rotten Apple’ and ‘Don’t Follow’ for sheer breathtaking quality. This really is the dual vocal dynamic taken up to maximum effect and it really is beautiful.

‘God Am’ is again an AIC masterclass. It’s just a stunning track. Sean Kinney’s drumming on this track is the most noticeable and interesting it has ever been: you never notice the drums on AIC songs, but on this one you do. Cantrell’s lead guitar lines on the choruses also really carry the song into a higher plain. And, as ever, Layne’s vocals, particularly on the choruses, are just something else.

Again, like most of the album, ‘God Am’ is a straight verse-chorus-verse number, with no bridge or changes; but it packs such a big punch and is so layered and dense that it is never in danger of feeling deficient.

Those four tracks, for me anyway, are the big hitters; but there is brilliance and flashes of magic throughout the rest of the record too. While, when thinking what my favorite AIC record is, Dirt instinctively comes to mind – the more I consider it, the more likely I am to pick either this album or the Jar of Flies/Sap EPs. Dirt is probably sonically and thematically the better album – it is more focused and more viscerally powerful. And the Jar of Flies/Sap EPs are such an evolutionary step and wonderful turn from Dirt (and shit, ‘Rotten Apple’ is one of the most compelling songs any band has ever recorded).

But whenever I listen to this record – despite its problems in track lengths and dynamics – I am always stunned at how good Alice in Chains (with Layne) were when you stripped them down and removed some of the metal/hard-rock layer.

The main problem with this album is simply that it could’ve been even better, given more time and work: and it’s just a little frustrating that it isn’t tight enough, especially when you can see how good every single song is in essence. ‘Grind’ is terrific in basic terms; great verses, melodious choruses. It perhaps suffers from a lack of dynamism, going along as it does in simple verse- chorus structure without any shifts or interesting developments. It’s still basically a killer tune, however.

‘Brush Away’ is one of my personal favorites; again, fairly simple and unpretentious, but the guitar work is hypnotic and Layne’s vocals are great.

‘So Close’ is a bad-ass number that feels kind of abrupt, over too quickly; but it’s also an AIC jam that sounds and feels unusually upbeat and vibrant and like it must’ve been a lot of fun (not a word you generally associate with AIC songs). It’s totally addictive from the get-go, the time shifts for the choruses are really effective, and – as if it needs to be said – the vocals are sublime. ‘So Close’, like much of the album, feels like a jam and almost like an incomplete song. It is terrific though, and I always wish they had done some more songs in this vein and tempo.

‘Again’ is one of the more dynamic tracks, which builds well and has shifting parts – and those chorus harmonies are utterly stunning. It sounds most like the track that could’ve sat comfortably on Dirt.

‘Heaven Beside You’, the lead single, suffers a little from being overdrawn, but is still in essence a strong song – it just needed to be tightened up. Even more so for ‘Frogs’, being the slowest, most downbeat track on the record. ‘Frogs’ might be the weakest song on the record; but it’s still actually pretty good for Layne’s vocals.

Even the ‘Nothin Song’, which could be dismissed as a half-baked, throwaway track, is pretty enjoyable once you stop expecting more from it – it’s also the closest to a Mudhoney or early Nirvana style song as the more metal-influenced AIC ever got.

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In the final reckoning, The Dog Album is in some ways fittingly bittersweet for Layne’s final album with the band – in that, despite being imperfect, displays the extraordinarily expansive potential of Alice in Chains to go in different directions and to do their own thing in their own way without being tied down. There are definitely shortcomings with the record, but Layne isn’t one of them – his voice is sublime throughout.

Is this AIC at their best? On the whole, it’s probably difficult to make that case. But I would make the case that there are songs here – ‘God Am’ and ‘Shame in You’, for example – that absolutely are Alice in Chains at their best.

 
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It’s an eternal shame that it just slowly fizzled out after this; that Layne never really came back to strength. As much as I enjoyed the big AiC comeback with Black Gives Way To Blue well over a decade later, I also always wonder what their music would’ve been like had it continued to evolve with Layne fronting it. A vocalist with that level of sheer, spine-tingling, sublime power, fronting a band that was already showing its evolving, expanding capacities (just look at the evolution from Dirt to Jar of Flies to the Dog Album), could’ve and would’ve had a fascinating and rich musical journey.

And songs like ‘Get Born Again’ and ‘Died’ a few years later – the last songs Layne ever recorded with the band – were further proof that AIC still could’ve been making some great music, as both were big, powerful tracks that demonstrated how much potential there was for another album.

As it stands, it’s this record, released over twenty years ago now, that remains the last, proper album of Layne Staley with Alice in Chains. And it is an imperfect entity, to be sure; but one that has frequent flashes of brilliance and demonstrates how great a band this was and how much Layne was bringing to it.

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Related: ‘Layne Staley: Still in Mourning‘, ‘Alice in Chains, 2013‘, ‘Soundgarden’s Down On the Upside – Was This the Last Great Album of the Era?‘, ‘Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy – The Brave, Uncompromising Experiment‘…

 

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