The last batch of new Alice in Chains music was their 1995 self-titled release. Since then, it’s been a case of either contractual obligation or of Columbia picking every shred of meat from the band’s bones (take your pick), with the releases of Unplugged, Live, the box set Music Box, and Nothing Safe: Best of the Box. Apart from guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s solo work and vocalist Layne Staley’s appearance on the first Mad Season album, the band has been utterly silent for six years. Alice in Chains has entered that rarified air, along with The Who, where their vault releases outnumber their new material. You’d think there wouldn’t be any way left to package their music.
Not so. Definitely for the casual listener, Greatest Hits glosses over the Alice in Chains catalog, offering one track from Facelift (“Man in the Box”), four from Dirt (Them Bones”, “Rooster”, “Angry Chair”, Would?”), two from Jar of Flies (“No Excuses”, “I Stay Away”), and three from Alice in Chains (‘Grind”, “Heaven Beside You”, “Again”). It covers pretty much everything you’ve heard if you tuned into ‘90s rock radio, and misses a lot.
At its worst, Greatest Hits reduces Alice in Chains to a singles-oriented band, ignoring the band’s sludgy legacy of addiction-fueled hard rock. Definitely benefiting from the Seattle grunge movement, AIC always had one foot firmly on metal soil, trafficking in ungodly heavy riffs and lyrics that sounded like they came from the cold, dark grave. How this band didn’t get on the soundtrack for every hip vampire movie from the last decade is beyond me. Alas, there’s only a glimmer of that grimy majesty on Greatest Hits.
If Greatest Hits serves any positive purpose, it’s to remove the patchiness of the Alice in Chains years. I don’t mean in terms of quality. The band’s early albums are definitely strongest, but the band never phoned it in. The unevenness of Alice in Chains is chronological, with the aforementioned bottomless pit of vault releases. It’s easy to forget the dense period in the early ‘90s when this band was making their mark. Also, due to circumstances like Staley’s alleged addictions that kept the band from working, albums like Jar of Flies felt like tide-the-fans-over patches instead of integral pieces of the AIC puzzle.
That’s especially a shame, since Alice in Chains was as equally comfortable exploring their acoustic side as they were rolling across the dark metal wastelands. Unlike virtually every other metal band that ever penned a ballad, Alice in Chains turned off the amps and wrote songs that were a natural extension of their louder material, not attempts at lighter-waving date anthems. By the time Unplugged hit the shelves, though, it felt like the band was just trying to make itself seem relevant again instead of recapping a diverse career. What should have been a document in keeping with the band’s legacy was instead filler for record store bins that hadn’t seen any new AIC product in a while.
At the very least, Greatest Hits focuses the spotlight back on the band’s fertile years. If you own even one of their albums (especially Dirt), you’ll not likely be needing this collection. However, if you’ve never really checked the band out, and have a jones for bottom-ended metal squalor, by all means grab Greatest Hits. Juggernauts like “Man in the Box”, “Them Bones”, and “Angry Chair” are as unrelenting and creepy now as they were a decade ago. Then you can go out, buy the original albums and pass Greatest Hits on to your little brother or someone else who’s unfamiliar with a band that was far stronger than most of us remember.
// Notes from the Road
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