Falling somewhere between alternative and metal, their chronology (the early 1990s) and location (Seattle) led to Alice in Chains being labeled or marketed as grunge. Facelift (1990) brought us the sounds of Black Sabbath lyrics and guitar riffs along with guitar solos reminiscent of the best 1980s work plus Layne Staley’s haunting, angry, and unique voice. The band’s finest moment, Dirt (1992) solidified their sound as a band. Dirt is also the group’s darkest statement with songs about heroin abuse, death, bitter fights with close friends, emotionally damaged Vietnam veterans, despair and desperation about lack of control over one’s own life, and their penultimate track “Would?” about singer and musician Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone who died of a heroin overdose in 1990.
By the mid-1990s Staley’s own heroin addiction was taking a toll on him. They managed to produce the well-received Alice in Chains (1995), though it is a step back. The band also released two softer, mostly acoustic EPs, Sap (1992) and Jar of Flies (1994) in which they pushed themselves to become even more than they already were. Both are excellent as is Above (1994), the one album from Mad Season, a supergroup with Staley.
After Alice in Chains the band moved into mostly archival mode releasing compilations and live albums including Unplugged (1996). Music Bank (1999), a compilation of demos, a few new songs, and mostly already released studio work suggested the band was either wrapped up or stalled indefinitely. “Died” stands as the final song Alice in Chains recorded with Staley. On April 5, 2002, exactly eight years after Kurt Cobain committed suicide, Staley died from an overdose of heroin and cocaine. He weighed merely 86 pounds.
Guitarist Jerry Cantrell released two solo albums. He made Boggy Depot (1998) with Alice in Chains bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney and Degradation Trip Volumes 1 & 2 (2002) without them. Both releases sound like lost Alice in Chain records. Although known more for his guitar work, Cantrell performs a lot of the vocals for Alice in Chains going all the way back to Sap. While it’s obvious Staley isn’t singing, the vocals don’t sound as different without him as one would expect. In 2005 the band reunited with new vocalist William DuVall who previously joined Cantrell for his Degradation Trip tour and the group began the second phase of their career. Black Gives Way to Blue (2009) and The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here (2013) revive the signature Alice in Chains sound.
Rainier Fog basically brings us more of the same. Beginning with a frantic guitar vamp “The One You Know” is a mid-tempo cruiser with all the trademarks of Alice in Chains: sludgy riffs, wah pedal, a soaring chorus, a solo that still shows Cantrell’s Van Halen influence, and vocals that—minus the full-throttle roar—sound as close to Staley as anything we can probably get. Cantrell and DuVall sound similar enough and trade vocals so much that I’m not always sure who is singing what when. Still, when they sing “An imposter, I’m not the one you know,” it’s almost as if the band is still conscious that some people don’t accept a version of Alice in Chains without Staley. Through most of the album, the songs follow the structure of “The One You Know”, which sounds thick and sludgy. Cantrell explains that “Rainier Fog” “is a little homage to all of that: where we come from, who we are, all of the triumphs, all of the tragedies, lives lived.” “Fly” lightens the mood a bit.
Although I’m jonesing for an all-out metal riffer in the vein of “Them Bones” at the midpoint, the slower, “Maybe” does give the album a different tone with a perky, light, and catchy chorus—though the lyrics seem to pull in the opposite direction. DuVall says that “So Far Under” is about “about feeling completely up against it—outnumbered, surrounded, facing seemingly unbeatable odds and being really pissed off about it”. If “So Far Under” were faster, it might be the track I was looking for several places ago. “All my friends are leaving” is the key line of “Never Fade”. Cantrell had put together some ideas, but the song was unfinished. DuVall stayed in the studio, wrote the lyrics as he thought about the recent passings of his grandmother and Chris Cornell, and put it all together at three in the morning. “All I Am” is an atmospheric, moody song. Since it’s about looking backward, it’s well-placed as the album’s closing track. “I was thinking about the imagery of an old boxer or old soldier that’s been through a ton of battles, and all of the scars you obtain through life, all the triumphs, all of the falls,” Cantrell explains.
The steadfastness and solidity of a mountain contrasted with the etherealness and amorphousness of fog provide a fitting album title from a band that both perseveres and adapts. The main issue with Rainier Fog, though, is that the band never climbs from the very bottom to the very top of that mountain and gives us all of their range. They stick relatively close to base camp, a well-stocked, but comfortable mid-point that largely eschews dynamics.
Returning to “The One You Know”, which asks, “Does it matter / If I’m still here or I’m gone”, the answer is yes. What I’d like to see next, however, is an EP like Jar of Flies with its previously unmapped areas and side trails that explore a new side of the band and offers a few surprises.