Death is DUMB Volume 4: Alice in Chains - Harmony in the Dark
MUSIC is not a GENRE - Season 3 Episode #28
ALL ABOUT IT
NICK – “Your Sister” (from Your EP)
REC – “Three More Minutes” (from Synergy for the Weird)
Once in a while I profile a band that is a perfect example of why genres & labels don’t work. Alice in Chains is one of those. They’ve always been lumped together with the other Seattle-slash-grunge-era bands – even though if you listened to Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, STP, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and whoever else back to back, you’d be hard pressed to say any of them really sound like each other. Nirvana leans punk. Pearl Jam classic rock. Pumpkins emo. STP power pop. And while all of these bands also have some of their roots in hard rock/metal, only Soundgarden & Alice in Chains took metal to its next evolution – progressive rhythmic & harmonic elements with enough breath & quietude to allow softer emotions to poke through.
Of those two bands, Alice in Chains hewed to the more traditional metal elements. Which makes sense because their origins were actual metal. Both Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell started out in typical 1980s glam metal bands – playing forms of actual hair metal (seriously, just look up the photos). When they got together to form the new Alice in Chains – copped from Layne’s old band name Alice N’ Chains, they kept the melodic & hammering rhythm elements of hair metal, and made it darker.
It helped that both Staley & Cantrell were incredible vocalists whose voices meshed well together. They’d often trade off lead vocals, but it’s when they came together to do those near medieval organum parallel harmonies that Alice in Chains became who they were meant to be. They somehow managed to be dark & bright all at once. Rock hard and accessible – even vulnerable, often in one song. It was a hallmark of grunge that sensitivity & major keys mixed directly with aggression & minor keys. Of all the aforementioned bands, Alice in Chain’s version was the most haunting & fully realized.
Which is what makes Layne Staley’s death in 2002 so sick. Not because he OD’ed on a speedball. Not because he suffered for years before trying to kick his addiction. Those are horrific facts that should be mourned and honored as Layne should be. No, it’s because we immediately associate the dark, haunting music with drug addiction & tragic death. We forget all too easily that hundreds of other dark bands have existed without tragedy, that Layne’s death is the exception rather than the rule. It diminishes the loss to say, “Oh of course he died that way. Just listen to the music.”
Like so many other bands who successfully merged disparate influences into something entirely new and endlessly captivating, Alice in Chains should not be defined by tragedy. They should be respected and enjoyed for the music they create, the new sounds & ideas they contribute, and the fact that they were and are musicians & artists just like any other artist from any other style you could possibly name.
Grunge in general was a big influence on my music. It woke me up to the possibility that I could show my harder side while still keeping my usual sensitivity front & center. I evolved from that sound years ago, but you can still hear Alice in Chains in my work, especially in songs like these two:
NICK – “Your Sister” (from Your EP) https://youtu.be/C6gF22Q5ygM
REC – “Three More Minutes” (from Synergy for the Weird) https://youtu.be/ZHw1kx86MPQ
Do you have any history with Alice in Chains? Do you remember Layne Staley’s death? Do you assume that all dark music is made by tragic people? What other favorite bands of yours do you think have been unfairly maligned because of their sound? Discuss dammit!