A classic bit of heavy metal trivia/lore concerns Black Sabbath’s use of a dissonant chunk of notes known as the “Devil’s Chord” on their first album, as if they were announcing their intentions in more subtle ways than, well, naming themselves Black Sabbath. Popular legend has always held that the chord was banned by the Medieval church, although the truth seems to lie somewhere between disapproval on religious grounds and disapproval merely on the basis of music theory. At any rate, it’s a cool notion, especially when you’re sixteen, just starting to build your black t-shirt collection, and trying to wrap your head around unrelenting sludge like Sabbath’s. From the start, Sabbath’s sound lived up to that obscure bit of rock ‘n’ roll mythology, and rock was never the same.
Alice in Chains were no strangers to the Sabbath school. Sure, they benefited from Seattle’s grunge explosion in the early ‘90s, but you have to figure they would have hit the big time regardless. Their debut, Facelift, overflowed with spooky, intimidating sounds that, like Sabbath’s, got the mind’s inner movie projector rolling. The guitar growl of “We Die Young” is the sound of Grendel rising from the swamp, full of bloodlust. The ringing chords that kick off “Sea of Sorrow” are the peals of brimstone-crusted bells calling ghost ships on the horizon. The chunky riffage and call-and-response vocals of “Man in the Box” are madness echoing off the walls.
If the band had flared out after Facelift, Alice in Chains would have stood out among the footnotes of metal, but their followup, 1992’s Dirt, hit like a freight train. Jerry Cantrell’s tasty guitar fury merged with singer Layne Staley’s fatalism (which wasn’t your garden variety metal fatalism, either, due to Staley’s constant struggles with addiction) to produce an album that still grinds away at your comfort zone. In terms of bleakness, Alice in Chains seemed to be saying, “Facelift? That was just a warmup.” Dirt in turn, was bookended by two largely acoustic EPs that marked Alice in Chains as one of the few bands who could unplug and keep their edge; Sap and Jar of Flies might have sounded lighter, but Staley’s lyrics were as vivid and matter-of-fact and disturbing as ever. In the span of a few short years, the band showed they were more than a sludgy one-trick pony, but Staley’s addiction problems made sure that shadows swam amongst even the band’s most delicate moments.
Staley died of an overdose in 2002, after his struggles with substance abuse had basically derailed the band. Apart from an MTV Unplugged performance and 1995’s so-so self-titled disc, the band was forced to sit on its hands for much of the ‘90s, with Cantrell releasing a couple of solo records consisting of what probably would have been Alice in Chains songs.
So Alice in Chains were yet another promising band cut down by internal tensions, with a recorded legacy that increasingly feels a little scattershot—probably a result of the way the band just fizzled out, as well as time’s ability to make things less vivid. What Alice in Chains always deserved was a decent retrospective. The single disc Greatest Hits cut way too many corners, and the Music Bank box set went too far in the diehard direction for most people. Enter The Essential Alice in Chains, which does a decent job of capturing the band’s high points over the course of two discs.
Granted, there are a couple of really strong cuts missing, but Essential takes the right approach, treating each of AIC’s efforts, be they full-lengths, EPs, or live albums, as equally valid entities. Sap contributes as many songs as the much longer Facelift, and Jar of Flies matches Unplugged‘s two songs. Dirt weighs in with a whopping nine songs, but that album does, after all, stand as the band’s flirtation with a chronicles-of-addiction masterpiece. Consequently, the first disc offers a really strong portrait of the band.
Disc 2’s a little weaker, if only because the set’s chronological approach illuminates the band’s decreasing focus and productivity. Two cuts from the Last Action Hero soundtrack, “A Little Bitter” and “What the Hell Have I” (both in slightly remixed form) are welcome additions, as are the two new songs the band cut for Music Bank. Making passes over Alice in Chains and Unplugged as well, Disc 2 is a nicely comprehensive summary of the later years. Although it’s hardly chronological, one of the band’s strongest tracks, “Would?”, closes things out. Smart move. It reminds the listener one last time of the power that Alice in Chains were capable of harnessing.
As a summary of a powerful band, The Essential Alice in Chains does its job very well.