Alice In Chains And The Seattle Curse

On July 3, 1996, Alice In Chains (AIC) continued to tour with legendary band KISS. Kansas City, Missouri. Sean Kinney (drums) sang a cover of KISS's "Beth", causing the scenario that half of the crowd cheer while the entire of the crowd shut down. Layne Staley (singer) had to speak to reassure the crowd: “We have one last song for you. During the whole tour, you guys were the biggest cheerleaders and we'll definitely have to perform everyone's favorite song".

Of course, "Man In The Box".

Alice In Chains

At the end of the song, the crowd cheered loudly. That day, the Kansas City audience did not know that they were the ones to see Layne Staley's last performance.

And that tour with KISS  by Alice In Chains also seemed fateful tour for an audience, who had just watched their performance in Louisville, Kentucky a few days earlier.  His name was William DuVall, who would be the next singer of Alice In Chains later.

But at the moment, all due respect would be given to the lineup of Layne Staley (vocals), Jerry Cantrell (guitar), Mike Starr/Mike Inez (bass), and Sean Kinney (drums), who made their mark into history with the unique sound created by them that no one else could reach. If, in this world, there is such a thing as a "standard sample" for Seattle grunge sound, I think the sound of Facelift (1990) discs deserves the same care that metrology institutes protect their standard samples. Indeed, if Soundgarden is known as the first grunge band which comes to light with the first major label recording contract, Nirvana is the band that made waves around the world and AIC itself might be the one most often overlooked band as the first to deliver the signature Seattle grunge sound from their album Facelift (1990). I've seen people make sounds like Soundgarden, and Nirvana's sound must be familiar. But creating a heavy and cool sound, the most typical of which is the harmonization of many vocals with guitar voices, it seems that no one has ever produced a color like AIC.

Of course, all things are difficult before they are easy, Facelift at first did not make any mark on the music market when it was first released. Everything turned 180 degrees after the video clip of the song "Man In The Box" was fortunately chosen to play by MTV although it was initially a bit timid from the leadership due to AIC's dark and weird image . When it was on aire, "Man In The Box" suddenly became a shock to all music listeners because no sound had been played like it before: ghostly, soulful, heavy, and dark.

Soon, AIC became the name of the most interest. People listened to AIC and families began to listen to AIC. The number of requests sent to MTV meant that Facelift's sales increased dramatically, from 40,000 copies in the first 6 months to 400,000 copies in just 6 weeks. The songs in Facelift were requested by listeners more than all the Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden combined at the time.

Alice In Chains

Therefore, the song "Man In The Box" was considered as a song that opened the door for popular music listeners to Grunge music from Seattle. For me, that's what opens the accessibility of the sound of grunge to people.

But perhaps people who contributed to that signature sound didn't get as much recognition or memory as AIC. The first thing to mention was probably King's X, a forgotten band from Seattle who dared to mix two unrelated things including punk and progressive.

According to historical records, before King's X, there was almost no musical activity in Seattle during the 70s and 80s. King's X delivered a music that was both heavy, melodic, and magically prog rock based on elements like multiple backings, symphonic mixes, and non-standard tuned guitars. While people were still debating whether King's X's music was prog rock, AIC and Pearl Jam, especially Jerry Cantrell were the ones who quietly researched Out of Silent Planet (1988). And Gretchen Goes To Nebraska (1989) of this group was the most thorough. So much so that when Facelift was released, King's X guitarist Doug Pinnick had to say "they sound exactly like me, but so much better". The King's X brothers also never compared with AIC or Pearl Jam in terms of musical origin because according to them, in music, everyone borrowed someone's stuff. They were proud of themselves on being the first band worth listening to in Seattle, that's enough.

Alice In Chains

The second person that AIC relied on was producer and sound engineer Dave Jerden, who was previously credited with bringing the sound of Jane's Addiction band. When he first heard the band's demo tape, Dave had a feeling for a heavy and dark sound very close to the music that Black Sabbath had released Heavy Metal before: riffs and bass guitars based on traditional blues , but it was all blurred by the heavy sound of the strings turned low.

Dave Jerden was also the one who "gave” bassist Mike Starr a 6-string bass to double track the bass part to become heavy. It perfected his playing bass skill based on the "unique and strange" notes of the scale, in order to "create" color" for Jerry Cantrell's power rhythm. Not to forget that the person who replaced Mike Starr later, Mike Inez, who was also a bassist of the "furnace" Ozzy Osbourne came out. So the rest assured that these bassists were all "ghost" and "dark".

Dave Jerden later shared the reason he and AIC understood each other so well. When he first met Jerry, he said to Jerry: “see Metallica? Those guys took Tony Iommi's stuff and made it fast and heavy. And you guys made it slower and heavier” (but I didn't see Dave Jerden told me why he was so understanding with AIC about double track recording).

The last person AIC had to thank for the most was probably Greg Gilmore, the drummer for Mother Love Bone. When he first started recording for Facelift, Sean Kinney was still in a cast due to a stupid prank a month earlier. Greg Gilmore was called into the studio to record for Sean, and it had only been one session when Dave Jerden walked in and said, “Shut the fuck up. This is not your sound". Sean gritted his teeth and cut the cast off right in the studio, stacked a bucket of ice next to the drums, and played with his broken arm. Indeed, Sean Kinney's violent drumming even with a broken arm was not something that could be easily reproduced.

But I don't know whether it's because one hand is slapping and applying ice, or Dave Jerden did not let Sean Kinney hit the click track. But the "irregular" element in the beat of the whole Facelift album appeared in many places, and suddenly, the very human "feeling" in the sound space of AIC suddenly became very specific and inimitable, just like the way Keith Moon created in the music of The Who. The audience probably realized this most clearly in the song "Man In The Box", Sean's drums felt noticeably slowed down when he drummed in the Intro before entering the second verse, making the second verse suddenly become more eager and exciting as if to reclaim the listener's attention after that distraction.

Alice In Chains

The rambling had to be over because my favorite thing and the specialty of AIC were still Layne Staley's unique voice and his backing vocals with Jerry Cantrell.

Layne did not possess a high-pitched voice like the singers in other rock bands. Perhaps that's why AIC's music was ignored by producers because it lacked that "traditional" quality. They forgot that AIC was on a mission to pioneer Seattle grunge. Except for Dave Jerden, only Dave could hear Layne's strong, vibrating voice through each growl. Layne's singing ability was so skilled that he could use it as an indispensable instrument in AIC's music. In the song "Godsmack", no one knew how Layne was able to create the tremolo technique without the help of external equipment. He felt the music so much that he added a scream effect like in the first seconds of "Them Bones" on Jerry's own riff sounding creepy.

Jerry Cantrell was probably a perfectionist no less than anyone in choosing sounds and notes. Jerry's backing was usually 3rd or 5th note from Layne's melody, and backing vocals probably took Jerry a lot of practice to perform live while he was still taking on the role of guitar. And yet, Jerry Cantrell always saved a part of the guitar part to play the same tune with the backing part, but sometimes in the song, Jerry had stopped singing but the guitar was still there, making the listener feel like Jerry's voice still sprouting from the middle of the piano.

Jerry Cantrell's guitar solo was probably my favorite among the solo brothers of the Seattle quartet, maybe it was because Jerry Cantrell pulled out the solo with a smooth sound like water but it was overflowing with emotion. Not to mention that Jerry's guitar solo was always at the right length without being too rampant. It was perhaps the most "silent sacrifice" of a good guitarist like him. Playing simple but effective was always what Jerry shared, and it was not without reason that Darrell Dimebag had praised that "a few notes of Jerry solo are more precious than a few hundred notes that other people play".

Jerry's guitar recording was very much a double track, usually using a guitar with a dual pickup (humbucking) first. And he was then recording the same part on another track on a guitar with a single pickup like the Stratocaster. Therefore, Jerry Cantrell's guitar sound would be very difficult to imitate if it was a profession. In many places, Jerry also added a Wah wah guitar, or a Voice box guitar (the idea was "borrowed" by Dave Jerden from Bon Jovi after "Living On The Prayer").

Countlessly, Layne Staley always recorded his vocals on double tracks to increase the thickness – a signature AIC feature that Kurt Cobain also often did  – adding Jerry Cantrell backing vocals, two lead guitar backing parts, one The guitar part wah wah, a backing guitar part follows Jerry Cantrell's vocals, and the bass part was also double tracked with a 6-string. Moreover, there was even a guitar playing with voice box effects and Jerry Cantrell's call-to-speech response. And just tell me, how did they mix all that on drummer Sean Kinney's heavy backing drums?

Alice In Chains

Right before Sean Kinney decided to remove the tape to record "Man in the box", Jerry Cantrell pulled Sean out and said, AIC had always been an inseparable family because the 4 guys were like the 4 corners of the box. The white power could not hold Sean Kinney to release a music album of a lifetime with AIC.

But there was another white power that won over Layne Staley and Mike Starr afterward despite even greater moral support from Jerry and Sean.

Layne fell deeply into the path of heroin addiction with his girlfriend and soul mate Demri for a long time. So when AIC recorded his second album Dirt, Layne was very addicted. Recording Layne's voice was difficult because there were times when he was drugged that he sang out of tune. To get her emotional back up, Layne covered up the glasses of her singing studio and made a “shrine” with candles, a painting of The Last Supper next to it, and a jar with a dead puppy in it. That space was so scary that no one dared to look into it. But Layne was used to create emotions when looking at each recording.

Even his best friend, bass player Mike Starr could not escape the temptation of that deadly drug. Both Mike and Layne often hided in the bathroom during the rehearsals, or while they were recordings or on tour to get drugged. It was the addiction that changed Mike's personality, which caused him to behave in such a way that both the band and the management team had to make the painful decision to fire even though the whole AIC association was extremely connected and Mike was always a member mainstay from day one. At Mike's last performance with AIC in Rio, the feeling of suffocation spurred him on to refill the drug. When the group played "Would?", Mike's knees trembled and his fingers became harder to control. His whole body seemed to be about to collapse. He cried right on stage because of the feeling of helplessness. Mike Inez - bassist for Ozzy Osbourne was then recruited to replace immediately after the album Dirt.

The absence of his best friend Mike Starr had have also made Layne feel more unbalanced. He became increasingly dependent on heroin, causing the band to fall apart. During the rehearsals and recordings for the Alice In Chains album of the same name, or the subsequent recording for MTV Unplugged, Layne struggled to put the little remaining sanity he had left in his work.

One day in October 1996, Demri died of a drug overdose. Layne was in excruciating pain. His relationship with Demri lasted for several years with enough ups and downs. There was a time when the two people got engaged but then they canceled the plan. However, Layne always loved Demri the most and her death was the biggest shock to his life.

Alice In Chains

For heavy addicts like Layne, once they accept the biggest consequence was death, they never intended to give up their addiction. Losing a soul mate only made Layne sank more into a self-destructive cycle of his own life. Layne Staley locked after himself in his Seattle apartment for years. The AIC also went into an indefinite shutdown since then.

As for Jerry Cantrell, in addition to struggling with his own addiction even though he was not involved in heroin, he focused on pursuing his own projects to forget the turmoil of the band. Jerry even practiced singing himself when he did not know how long the band he had formed with him could survive. Though in his and Sean's heart, AIC has always been like a family and Layne Staley was irreplaceable. Together, or there would be no AIC at all.

After a while, one day in August 1998, Jerry, Sean, and Mike Inez wanted to record two new songs with Layne for AIC's Music Bank compilation. The whole guild presented early, and they were anxious to see the old comrades again after a long absence. Then Layne Staley showed up in the studio. No one recognized him. Layne looked as wretched as an old man in his 80s and at best weighed 45kg. The entire guild painfully looked at Layne's appearance without any teeth at that moment.

It took a while for Layne to regain focus to record. His singing was still there, but his pronunciation was slurred because he has no teeth left, causing the sound engineer to process it with software later. The last two songs that Layne sang with AIC that day were “Get Born Again” and “Died”. That day, the band AIC was born again, which thanked to this brief reunion, and the soul of the group also quickly died.

One day in April, nearly four years after the recording session, Layne's mother had to call 911 and asked to break down the door to Layne's home after she had a bad feeling. Layne Staley lost the battle with self-destruction. Layne's body rested on the sofa. Died of a drug overdose two weeks later among his belongings, there was still the teddy bear that Demri had held while she was in the hospital.

Mike Starr's fate was not much better. He also died from drug addiction, nearly 9 years after Layne died. Until the last days of his life, Mike Starr still carried with him the guilt of not calling an ambulance for Layne Staley when Mike met him the day before Layne died, just because Layne did not let Mike do so.

It took a long time after that, Alice In Chains was able to return to William DuVall as a singer. Jerry Cantrell continued to persevere through the years with a solo career, collaborating with artists, and driving AIC, and received acclaim from his great colleagues such as Metallica, Pantera, Van Halen was an outstanding guitarist and recording artist, accolades that not many people can claim.

But the four corners of the box were not intact. And the guy inside the box had already freed himself.


Alice In Chains

"Mom, I'm the one who composed that song!" Layne Staley called her mother. "Layne, that song sounds great, son."

It wasn't until later that Layne's mother understood that Layne wanted her to know that he was the character locked up in that "Man In The Box" - an addict in need of a rescue.

“I'm the dog who gets beat

Shove my nose in shit

Won't you come and save me

Save me”

R.I.P Layne Staley (April 5, 2002), Mike Starr (March 8, 2011)

Long live Jerry Cantrell.