Alice in Chains, Jar of Flies

The Dark Beauty of Alice In Chains’ ‘Jar of Flies’

Unplanned and unprepared, when Alice in Chains recorded Jar of Flies‘ catchy songs on the fly, they created some of their career’s darkest yet warmest music of their career.

Jar of Flies
Alice in Chains
25 January 1994

Alice in Chains Jar of Flies is an important record that resonates with audiences 30 years after its release because it packed so much into a small space. Clocking in at just over a half hour, the seven songs of the 1993 EP lyrically explore the dark themes that were Alice In Chains’ signature, but it did so with a warmer and more intimate sound than their previous full-length albums. Indeed, Jar of Flies is different from much of the music that came out of the Seattle music scene of the early ’90s, and it showed the band’s willingness to try new things with their sound while channeling some of their demons into their art. 

Alice In Chains is an outlier in the catch-all definition of “grunge”. Their debut album, Facelift, came out in 1990, so they weren’t one of the dozens of flannel-wearing bands that rushed through the breach Nirvana created in 1991 with Nevermind. Whether you consider them metal or grunge, Alice In Chains is frequently described as having a “sludgy” sound because of their heavy use of down-tuned and distorted guitars poured over several songs with slower, plodding tempos. As heavy as their sound is, the Layne Staley era of Alice In Chains showed the band was not afraid to take a left turn creatively and try something different. The Sap EP, released in 1992, is mostly acoustic and the first time Jerry Cantrell sings lead vocals on a song. 

Jar of Flies was the next step in their evolving sound, and Alice In Chains’ path to record and release the EP is interesting. The band toured extensively in 1992 and 1993, opening for Guns N’ Roses on the Use Your Illusion tour before headlining their North American gigs and joining Lollapalooza in the summer of 1993.  It’s easy for bands to get caught up in the fantasy world of life on the road. Alice In Chains got so wrapped up in life on the road that they forgot to pay rent on the apartment they shared in Seattle, and the band members were evicted. They had nowhere to live when they stopped touring, so they called record producer Toby Wright and booked ten days at London Bridge Studio. This gave them a temporary place to crash while they figured out their next move. 

Toby Wright wanted to prepare for the recording session, so he asked Alice In Chains to send some demo tapes before they showed up at the studio. Except there weren’t any. The band dodged the request by saying the tapes wouldn’t get to him before the sessions, but once they showed up at London Bridge Studio with their bags and no songs, they had to admit their situation. 

Without any new material in their back pocket, Alice In Chains decided to spend the week and a half in the studio jamming with a mostly acoustic sound and writing songs on the fly. Layne insisted that the band record these sessions in analog without using ProTools or other modern software. Staley also told Hit Parader in 1994 that they intentionally moved away from Dirt‘s harder and louder sound, the album they were touring. 

“We had just gotten off the road where we had traveled something like 50,000 miles, and played ear-blasting music every night. We just wanted to go into the studio for a few days with our acoustic guitars and see what happened.”

The result was one of the best records in Alice in Chains’ career, but they weren’t even planning on releasing it. “We never really planned on the music we made at the time to be released,” Staley said. “Lucky for us, when Columbia Records heard the songs that came out of the sessions, they pushed the band to release them. …the record label heard it and they really liked it. It was more their idea to release it than it was ours,” Staley continued. 

Musically, Jar of Flies differs from most of the music from Seattle in the early ’90s, especially for a group that built their brand straddling the line between grunge and heavy metal. Jerry Cantrell still plays guitar in the band’s signature drop tuning, but the seven songs on the EP also have an instrumental, a string section, acoustic guitars, a harmonica, and a talkbox. While Jar of Flies isn’t strictly an acoustic release like their awesome live album in 1996, MTV Unplugged, the electric guitars are used sparingly and subtly. 

Cantrell said they spread out into these different instruments as part of the natural writing process. “The song will tell you what news to be there,” he told Billboard. “I’m not afraid of using a lot of ingredients to get the best result in the end. It doesn’t scare me.” That last phrase is worth considering. This era of Alice In Chains was not scared of turning off fans by trying something different. 

A band personnel change also contributed to the different sounds of Jar of Flies. Bassist Mike Inez joined Alice In Chains in 1993 after former bass player Mike Starr was kicked out over his drug addiction. Inez had already established himself as a rock ‘n’ roller by playing bass in Ozzy Osbourne’s band—he wrote the iconic bass line for the Prince of Darkness’ 1991 album, No More Tears.

While the bass is generally an instrument riding beneath the surface of a rock record, Mike Inez’s playing shows up more prominently on a few of the songs on Jar of Flies. The first notes we hear on the EP – on “Rotten Apple” – are the bass. “Swing on This” opens with a bass groove that dances up and down the fretboard with an uncharacteristically jazzy sound for Alice In Chains.

Moving from the instruments to the vocals, Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell sing on Jar of Flies. Their different singing styles add contrast to Alice In Chains’ sound, and that contrast is more prevalent in the EP’s more intimate music. Layne Staley’s voice is powerful, emotional, and dark. His voice could soar and then dive into a growl, and he frequently drew out his notes. 

Layne Staley also liked to layer several tracks of his vocals to add more depth to his singing, and the band uses this on “I Stay Away”, “No Excuses“, and “Rotten Apple“. Jerry Cantrell’s voice is gritty and melodic. Alice In Chains frequently used his vocals to add texture to Staley’s vocals, and the two of them sing a lot of harmonies on Jar of Flies

“No Excuses” is a good example of these harmonies. Staley and Cantrell sing most of the song together, and Staley holds some of his notes slightly longer, trailing off into that signature tremolo. On “Don’t Follow“, they pass the vocals back and forth in the opening verses, then weave their vocals together around the middle of the song. 

These elements combine to create an overall warm and inviting atmosphere in Jar of Flies – and therein lies the brilliance of the EP. The songs are catchy to a quick and casual listen, but the lyrics are some of the darkest that this era of Alice In Chains recorded. They deal with loneliness, despair, and addiction. 

The Layne Staley era of Alice In Chains wrote a lot of songs about drug addiction, but “Nutshell” is among their darkest. There is despair and vulnerability in the lyrics, like, “and yet I fight / this battle all alone / no one to cry to / no place to call home”. and “If I can’t be my own / I’d feel better dead”. “That song”Nutshell” sums up Staley’s battle with his demons so well that Inzez told Revolver in 2013, “Layne was very honest with his songwriting. And in Nutshell, he really put everything in a nutshell for everybody. That song still gets me choked up whenever I play it.”

Indeed, Layne Staley was a tragic rock ‘n’ roll archetype: a singer who channeled the darkness of his heroin addiction into his music. His demons ultimately killed him, but that darkness is what made Alice In Chains such a good band. 

While Alice In Chains didn’t plan on releasing the music they made during these recording sessions, Jar of Flies was a commercial success. It was the first EP to debut at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart, and it’s gone quadruple platinum in the three decades since its release. The band celebrated the EP’s 30th anniversary with a limited edition vinyl box set that quickly sold out. 

Layne Staley died of a drug overdose in 2002, and the band took a 14-year hiatus before re-entering the music with William DuVall as their frontman on the 2009 release Black Gives Way to Blue. The second version of Alice In Chains still makes great music, but it hasn’t had anywhere near the band’s success when Layne Staley was with them. 

Works Cited

Brown, Jake. Alice In Chains: In the Studio. April 2011.

Grow, Kory “Layne Staley Remembered: Alice In Chains’ Mike Inez Pays Tribute”. Revolver. 1 December 2023.

Karan, Tim. “With Jar of Flies, Alice In Chains Unleashed an Accidental Masterpiece”. A.V. Club. 6 May 2014.

Janicke, Rob. “Jar of Flies By Alice In Chains Proves That Darkness And Isolation Can Be Beautiful”. Generation Riff. 26 January 2022,