16 min read

Analogies In Chains

Analogies In Chains

I’ve been an Alice In Chains fan for less than a decade. I’m willing to admit that because I trust you not to tell anyone. To be clear, it’s not being a fan that I’m ashamed of. What I’m ashamed of is that it took me so long to realize that not only are Alice In Chains as top notch/hot shit as the contemporaries of theirs I’ve always adored (Nirvana, Screaming Trees, and–if more on principle than practice–Mudhoney), they may be the band that holds up the best out of all of them. What a fool I was up, until 2014 (approximately). What a fucking idiot.

Alice in Chains, for those of you conceived during lockdown, is a long-running doom metal–in the classic groove rock sense–band that–due largely to style of dress and regional proximity–was considered a “grunge” act in the early ‘90s. The grunge designation was problematic for most of the acts it was applied to. Outside of being from the Pacific Northwest, bands like Nirvana, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, Soundgarden, Tad, and Pearl Jam had little in common besides stringy hair and a sad attitude. It’s tempting to throw “affinity for ‘70s hard rock revivalism” on that pile, except that the single most archetypal grunge band, Nirvana, was, as those wags in the Village Voice put it at the time: “Husker Dü with better production.” It wasn’t till the second wave of grunge that the genre, as a musical (more than cultural) form, became codified as “morose, deep-voiced dude moaning vague expressions of self-loathing over mid-tempo, rehashed Bad Company riffs.” Throughout it all, Alice In Chains was a heavy metal band.

My relationship to heavy metal has been–for most my life–that of a circumstantial, albeit appreciative and occasionally bewildered, outside observer. In high school, the smokers in the back of the school bus, paternalistically kind as they were to me, let my Mudhoney tape play for almost an entire song before they switched it out for Guns ‘n’ Roses, saying, “sorry Zack, but that dude can’t sing.”

Taking in this new information; that Mark Arm couldn’t sing but Axl Rose totally could, I realized that there was a subtlety of interpretation going on in Heavy Metal and hard rock that I wasn't going to be privy to anytime soon.

Later, my first NYC band (which has no online presence, so don’t look) covered hard rock bands like Poison, Grand Funk, and Nazareth. But we made it clear that we did so under cultural duress; bending to the cowboy-hat, Nashville Pussified reality in which we were attempting to operate. I kept my stoner rock intake to a minimum and, later, did not embarrass myself by getting drawn into Hipster Heavy Metal Summer of ‘06.

I liked the metal that crossed my path, there was a lot of Venom and Slayer on the jukeboxes at Sweetwater Tavern and Mars Bar, but, remembering the shame of trying to cross the school bus aisle, I knew better than to inflict my amphetamine-goth outfit, of cheap suits and pre-loosened ties, on the world of denim and leather.

This all changed in the middle-aughts when, looking for some tour reading in a New Jersey gas station, I saw a hardcore band I’d dug in the 1990s, on the cover of a magazine called Decibel.

At that point in my former (second NYC) band’s existence, we largely communicated with each other by means of complaining about whoever wasn’t in the room at the time. I spent my time seething on the van back bench, cursing the day I formed the band, the day I was born, and the day one of my bandmates bought the David Cross stand-up CD that played on constant rotation, throughout the nine hour drives from one minutely attended show to the next. I was bored of indie, bored of noise rock, bored of post-hardcore, bored of smug comedians mistaking “Christianity sure is dumb” for a punchline, and, most of all, bored of my stupid self. I hadn’t heard of 90% of the bands in Decibel Magazine, and the writing made it seem like there was a parallel world, close to my own, where Satan was real, there was no competition to the bottom over who could pretend to care about their appearances less, and nobody had heard of Animal Collective.

It also helped that it turned out that a lot of Black Metal riffs sounded almost exactly like those played by Archers of Loaf.

I call myself a poseur occasionally; less as a put-down and more as a concession to the understandable provincialism of lifetime metalheads. Like how I won’t call myself a “New Yorker,” despite having lived here for over twenty-five years. Because I didn’t grow up here, and it’s not an argument I need to have with guys who are still inordinately mad that Marz Bar started charging $6 for Jameson (or whatever was in the Jameson bottles), that a nickel will no longer get you a Swans-shirtload of heroin on Ave.C, and that Jesse Malin cut his hair.

I don’t regret being late to metal. I know the love has existed in my heart of hearts, since my teenage years, for even the mid-period oeuvre of Mike Muir and his Suicidal Tendencies. So I feel no real guilt for failing to crossover past Crossover. I think I even did drugs with one of the CoC guys once. Though it could have been literally anybody else.

I do regret the time I spent not listening to Alice In Chains.

When Alice In Chains first became popular, there was a bit of hierarchical jockeying amongst the grunge elites and their respective fan bases.  While the term “industry plant” wasn’t in use yet, there was a feeling that bands like Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains were somehow suspect.

The former was distrusted because they kind of sucked (I’ll concede that they did, and do, interesting things) (but I do so partially out of liking that Peter Gabriel track off their last album).

For the latter band it was a bit more complicated. Alice In Chains was seen, by many in and out of the grunge intelligentsia, as a hair metal band in disguise; a counter-grungeolutionary psyop made up of (and for) the kind of anti-punk heshers who were calling all us lil’ Kurdts “faggot” just a few months before.

The aesthetic differences within grunge were based on very real philosophical differences between musicians, and not just the fevered imaginations of fifteen year olds weighing what CD was most vital, in terms of their identity, to shoplift. Green River, arguably the “first” grunge band, broke up soon after the members saw Jane’s Addiction perform live. Some of Green River saw Perry Ferrel’s hard-prog sensuality as pompous and silly. They formed Mudhoney. Other members saw their futures; an ambitious phantasmagoria of golden god prophecy, with extra attention paid to riding the toms. They formed Mother Love Bone, and then Pearl Jam.

Alice in Chains were indeed a hair metal band in disguise. I mean, this is true if we buy, for a second, the entirely dumb adult canard of “grunge replaced hair metal,” and if we consider Groucho Marx glasses and parting one’s hair differently to be a master disguise. Jerry Cantrell and Layne Staley never made any effort to hide that the “In” in their band name was initially shortened to “N’.” And not because the band was trying to save time. And if much of their work, from the second album on, was–in the vein of Black Sabbath and Trouble–groove inflected doom metal, Alice in Chains’ debut (1990’s Facelift) was–regardless the heaviness of funk and theme–unadulterated hard glam rock. It’s no coincidence that when Skid Row, the following year, made their entirely viable attempt to stay afloat in the (slightly) changing currents, the two sounds they attempted to approximate most were that of G N’ R and A I’ C. And the sound Skid Row came closest to was Facelift. They didn’t have to travel far to get there.

I didn’t purchase Facelift when it came out. I liked the hit single, “Man in the Box,” well enough. Not in the way I loved Nirvana or Mudhoney, let alone the albums that were the soundtracks to my profoundly beautiful adolescent agonies (mainly Fugazi’s Repeater and *cough* the Descendents live album). I liked “Man in the Box” in the “well, this is better than all the other stuff on MTV, besides 120 Minutes” way. I liked it in the way I liked Billy Idol’s “Cradle of Love” or Faith No More’s “Epic.” Maybe a bit more than I did George Michael’s “Freedom ‘90” and a bit less than Dee-lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart.” Facelift certainly didn’t register as part of any cultural sea change, or as part of any scene at all.

Even now, looking at Wikipedia, I can’t quite comprehend that Facelift came out a full year before the funk metal explosion/implosion.

As any teenager worth their salt will tell you, what other teenagers like pretty much sucks. Nirvana being the most popular band on the planet didn’t count. Because that was a fluke. The exception that proves the rule. Even Kurt knew their popularity was a cosmic mistake, and one he eventually couldn’t get past. Screaming Trees didn’t count either, as they were quickly relegated to one hit wonder status. If the Clash taught me anything (besides Spanish Civil War factoids), it was that not being particularly good at selling out is the next best thing to having integrity. Point being; as Alice in Chains grew in popularity, I was even less inclined to get over my disinterest. I eventually grouped them in with Stone Temple Pilots; not as explicitly jock-corny as Pearl Jam (nice Dead Boys cover, assholes) or Rage Against The Machine, but still the purview of lemmings and squares; the sort of people who only bought SPIN for who was on the cover, and who were alternative in great enough numbers to apparently populate an entire nation. I’d read enough of the first five pages of Manufacturing Consent to know that nations were bad.

While I was dismissing Alice In Chains for being out of step with my arbitrary and insufferable sense of discernment, everybody who knew better had already settled the science of Alice In Chains being a band whose importance kept pace with their popularity. The band had quietly entered the exclusive canon (along with Motorhead, Black Sabbath, Johnny Cash, Peter Gabriel to a lesser extent, and exactly one song by Fleetwood Mac) of “artists that the majority of muso-inclined metalheads, punks, and goths all agree on.” If anybody bothered to tell me, I hadn’t been listening.

Alice in Chains’ second full length, 1992’s Dirt, would be a classic heavy rock album even if grunge (and its crappy stepchild, post grunge) hadn’t inevitably aged into the radio format. Much is made of the “darkness” of AIC’s sound, with special attention to the vocal harmonizing between Stanley and Cantrell. But the precedent for the two men’s piercingly distraught voices–working in conjunction as faithless gospel–was set years earlier. First by, as a template, The Everly Brothers. And then perfected, as a dark (regardless the occasionally flower child lyrical themes) folk rock, on the first (and canonically only) Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young album.

Alice in Chains comparisons to the Everly Brothers are common, with Dave Kamp saying: “Grunge goes Everlys: the doomy Seattle band surprised listeners who thought of them as heavy rockers with this melodic two-part harmony showcase, with guitarist and song composer Jerry Cantrell handling the high Phil part and vocalist Layne Staley handling the low Don part.”  Kamp was talking about the Jar of Flies song “No Excuses,” not necessarily the entire catalog. But even the heaviest songs on AIC’s self-titled “tripod” album showcase the tight harmonizing the band shared with “Bye Bye Love.”

The critic Greil Marcus once said, “There is an infinite amount of meaning about anything, and I free-associate.” He said this, presumably, on his way to writing a 600 page history of punk that connected John of Leyden (the 16th-Century heretic) to John Lydon (the butter salesman). Let us, for a moment, explore a few of those infinite meanings.

  • On the first song off the first Everly Brothers album, Layne Staley may have heard Don and Phil sing, “if she does any wrong, you know she keeps it from me,” and he may have considered his own substance abuse issues, and he may have thought to himself, “that’s one way to do it...”
  • The Bee Gees were, according to Allmusic’s Bruce Eder, “the Australian Everly Brothers,”
  • and seeing as how the Bee Gees, making use of some the most forlorn vocal melodies/themes ever written for pop music, rendered the Everly Brothers’ moody underpinnings, already the subtext of so much of that duo’s songs, as grandiose, doom-lite, melancholia
  • (with “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” for example, working as essentailly a proto-”Suicide Solution” depressive-choogle),
  • and seeing as how the Gibb Brothers were so often perceived as the less authentic Beatles (in much the same way a certain grunge/secret metal act wasn’t granted the Authenticity Punk Pass that Nirvana, no matter the number of Rolling Stone Magazine covers or MTV video awards, never had to sweat too hard),
  • and having accepted Greil Marcus’ theories on cultural recurrence, there’s a case to be made for the Bee Gees, besides being The Fab Four (Three) of Queensland, also being the Alice In Chains of the 1960s.
  • At very least, to paraphrase poor Robin Gibb, I started a joke. And then I believed it.
  • If the reader wants to take the submitted evidence of the Faith No More cover as a proof positive of Bee Gees As At Very Least The Proto Alice In Chains, the reader would be a real pal.

If the Everly Brothers comparison is a given, the Bee Gees connection arguably born out by my compelling sense of historical friskiness (and Jerry Cantrell’s claims of listening to the Gibbs as a child), then Alice in Chains’ rightful place–as heir (no pun intended) apparent to Crosby,Stills, Nash & Young’s messy throne–is practically self-evident. Lots of bands vie for that designation but, as much as legions of nü folkers have, over the years, faciley psychedelicized their way through albums of high harmony solipsism, it was Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell who best approximated CSNY’s gift for communicating their own personal idiosyncrasies as tightly harmonized beatific hassle. And Alice in Chains’ singers made it sound like it was just their nature. Like Dirt couldn’t be anything other than what it was; pitiless honesty sang as reverie; a traditionally death-minded folk rock amidst a posturingly despondent fad; a couple sweet, sweet angels singing to the pin.

  • What I’m sayin is: If, CSNY aside, the platonic ideal of the kind of songwriting that we’re talking about–‘60s/’70s dark harmonies, cunt hair breadth between intertwined voices, where the harmonies and melody are symbiotic, and a wild and free use of parallel fifths–is “The Chain” (and it is);
  • then the difference between Alice in Chains’ melody/harmony interplay and the plasticine Vibes of the 70s playlist mongering–that so many of the indie/freak/folk bands of the last twenty years (all of whom I get confused with Fleet Foxes and Foxygen) traded in–is akin to the difference between Fleetwood Mac’s album version of “The Chain” (accompanied by little more than hard drugs, jaw droppingly callous tendencies towards infidelity, and a huge studio budget), and the remaining Fleet Macs performing the same song, half a century later, as a hyperreal tribute to past inglories, with Harry Styles singing off to the side, in an ill-fitting peacoat, looking like he was honored to join the cast of Cowboy Bebop.
  • My other analogy between AIC and lesser sad-harmony interplay acts is: “The Old Gumbie Cat” performed by any iteration of the Broadway cast of Cats, versus the Rebel Wilson arrangement in the 2019 film of the same name.
  • Point being: All the perfect hair and all the razzle and dazzle, and all the facts that you're surrounded by mice
  • –and that you don’t appear to have a butthole–
  • can only get you so far.
  • Eventually, if you want to laze about on David Crosby’s iron throne, you need to write “Angry Chair.”
  • Or your band’s justified fate is to end up playing the middle-sized-font-slot at this year’s Los Angeles County Fair; Silversun Salute to 2011.

To be a tad more generous to Fleet Foxes, freak folk, Harry Styles et al, I should make clear that none of these acts were attempting to sound like Alice in Chains. (Most of the former would probably claim that they weren’t even going for CSNY. Whether or not musicians of the psych-lite sort claim to be mostly indebted to Brian Wilson because they don’t want to see “Beatles-esque” in their write ups–and want an excuse to not work too hard on lyrics–is a question for a later essay.)

But, suffice to say, the numbers of Bon Iverians who cite Jerry Cantrell as a chief influence are scant. My partner, Zohra, tells me that when Brandon Curtis, of Secret Machines, was recording her first Religious To Damn songs, he and she spent hours in the studio discussing their shared AIC fandom. So it’s not like it didn’t happen. But a band like Secret Machines was only “indie” insofar that there wasn’t really any other place to pigeonhole them. If one wants an accurate, general (and generally embarrassing) overview of how, up until very recently, Alice in Chains was perceived within the larger indie ecosystem, you can simply type the band’s name into the search bar of any of your preferred indie music sites. Be sure to get back to me after you’ve gone through the entire–meager in column inches, but expansive in condescension–verbiage devoted to the topic. Should take about thirty minutes, with around a third of that time spent waiting for multi-paged lists from 2010 to load.

While the aughts and tens were lousy with abject Alice in Chains underappreciaters (such, I’m sad to again admit, as myself), with even those pop-rocktimists prone to Nirvana revisionism occasionally shifting their hagiography only as far as Soundgarden and STP, there were plenty who knew better. Besides the non-critic, non-musician, actual human fans of actually popular rock music, the uncles and friends of uncles who turned up “Would?” every time it came on the Classic Rock radio station, there were Alice Chains fans of more relevance to the niche, anti-populist, uncle-agnostic concerns of this newsletter. There were the metalheads.

Even after I grew up, got into heavy metal, became a thoroughly nice person, and eliminated all traces of snobbery within me, it still took a while for me to realize how wrong I’d been about Alice in Chains. It was Zohra, who–while not an archetypal metalhead–has always had one foot in that world, got me into Alice In Chains. Without the influence being obvious, she had always, without hesitation or caveat, cited the hell out of every album the original incarnation of Alice in Chains made. My conversion came through listening to Zohra sing along to those records, and through listening to her talk to other metal musicians, from black to prog to thrash, through once seeing her and Dave Davidson (of death metal band, Revocation) leading a 4AM acapella singalong–complete with Davidson conducting last-call singers like they were an Alice In Chains Orchestra, and air guitaring the riff to “Rooster,” and, finally, through my bandmates in Publicist UK being such partisans of the band that our drummer, Dave Witte, would play post-Staley AiC albums (that he paid for with American dollars) in the tour van. It was through all this that I realized just what–through a snobbish adherence to received-in-adolescence wisdom–I had been missing for so long.

Metal fans have as loose a definition of what fits under their preferred genre’s umbrella as punks and indie fans. But metalheads’ standards tend to be less lifestyle based than those who might be inclined to try to claim everything they like as essentially being part of their hobby. While I’ve seen, aghast and in person, a man call Nina Simone “punk,” presumably because she too found authority to be questionable, it’s more rare to see metalheads try to elevate ostensibly-wicked-kick-ass happenings; such as a dog wearing a bandana, Hilary Clinton getting a particularly scathing quote tweet in or, like, bacon, to Ozzy levels of transgression by writing “that’s so metal” in the comments. That’s the purview of normies, for who heavy metal is nothing by signifier. Real metalheads tend to require at least some below-the-surface similarity, between some random thing that they enjoy and an Exodus album, before they’re willing to grant any metallic dispensation. For instance, the aforementioned Dog With Bandana would, in order to qualify as “metal,” need some sort of accompanying video; where the pupper in question demonstrated, through either howl or demeanor, an at least passing familiarity with Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying.

In that vein, metalhead recommendations carry a weight that recommendations from others do not. A punk or indie rocker will brainwash you into buying a $30 Godz, Groundhogs, or Pink Fairies album, safe in the knowledge that attaching a hyphenated “proto,” at the start of the hyperbole, renders even the slickest reach as inarguable. Metalheads, on the other hand, will, at worst, insist that their favorite doom band is actually improved by the drummer having slabs of Wisconsin cheddar for hands.

Metalheads also, in one of the few positives attached to the genre’s adherence to a rugged individualism that can veer into libertarianism, are less inclined than punks and indie rockers to recommend bands that are carbon copies of other bands. I, as a punk music fan, can–at the drop of the hat–insist that a new hardcore band that sounds exactly like every other hardcore band that ever existed, is the greatest band on the planet. Metal fans, however, can be as particular and nit-picking-ly cruel as the nicest live music fan in Germany.

It should be noted that metal fans will also call you a hipster for actually taking their advice, and insist that proof of authenticity can only be shown by

  • either buying a limited-to-15-copies cassette of anti-polio-vaccine-themed cascadian hiss (entitled “Entropic Infernaldimensional Cessation of the Pestilent Roma,” and with the drums recorded on a literal tapeworm),
  • agreeing with them that Ian Gillan was the best Sabbath vocalist,
  • or publicly admitting that your “screamo” band is actually a metalcore band; your tattooist just isn’t great with colors
  • But all this is a small price to pay for them being right about Alice in Chains.

Layne Staley died in 2002. Alice In Chains continues to this day, with William DuVall as lead vocalist. The band’s last few albums might be more interesting if DuVall was allowed to veer off a bit from Staley’s singing style but, even within the confines that the band has apparently decided they are comfortable within, the records DuVall has made with Cantrell (and Sean Kinney and Mike Inez) are lovely, bordering occasionally on AOR (in a good way), doom metal; and far better than they probably need to be. They may even be better than that. I’m, historically speaking, a less than reliable judge of the Alice In Chains catalog. I’m not alone in that, but I’m also happy to say that I’m hardly alone in being passionate in my reassessment. I like agreeing with so many people about how astoundingly good the band was all along. This must be what it’s like to be a Republican in Orange County, or to enjoy soccer everywhere else.

So, I was wrong about Alice In Chains. Not as wrong as some–I deleted two whole paragraphs devoted to some of the countless terrible alt metal bands that try and fail to approximate AIC’s sound–but wrong enough. If Alice In Chains are Woodstock, and their pale, dimwitted imitators are Woodstock ‘99, then I’m Woodstock ‘94; not great, but not a war crime of stupidity either. Really, I’m like grunge. Affable in my misremembering of the past, somewhat stylish in my mess, objectively better than Bryan Adams, and, in retrospect, not as cool as Salt-N-Pepa. But, as Salt, Pepa, and DJ Spinderella once put it–in their 1993 dissertation of what might make a man good, which could have doubled as an epitaph for Layne Staley, or any of us: “I know that ain’t nobody perfect. I give props to those who deserve it.”

Thanks for reading!