The death on Tuesday of former Alice in Chains bassist Mike Starr continued the tragic legacy of one of the most beloved bands to emerge out of the early 1990s grunge scene in Seattle.
Largely because of late singer Layne Staley’s debilitating drug addiction , in their heyday, AIC were known almost as much for their long periods of inactivity as they were for their gloom-laden, brooding music.
Melding hard-rock guitars and the sludgy grunge aesthetic of the time, AIC stood out from the pack thanks to their adoption of a more classic heavy-metal sound and intense, almost unrelentingly bleak lyrics that touched on everything from drug addiction and isolation to the plight of Vietnam veterans.
The seeds of the group were formed in 1986, when a then-teenage Staley quit his first group, Sleeze, and formed a new band, Alice N Chains, which followed the lead of a number of other Seattle bands at the time in mixing up the gender-bending look and sound of glam metal with the more hard-hitting sound of speed-metal acts such as Slayer.
The rail-thin, enigmatic Staley met future AIC guitarist Jerry Cantrell when both were working at the Music Bank rehearsal studios, and they soon became roommates. When Alice N Chains fizzled out, Staley joined forces with Cantrell, who brought along his bandmates from the glam act Diamond Lie, drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Starr. They considered a number of names for their new group, including Mothra, but decided to go with Alice in Chains because Staley thought it suggested the image of a cross-dressing speed-metal band.
After working on their patented mix of brutish, crunching guitars and grim psychedelic blues, the group quickly stood apart from future Seattle peers by honing a menacing sound that owed more to the work of metal icons Black Sabbath and Deep Purple than the punk-derived sound of such grunge contemporaries as Nirvana and Soundgarden.
A demo called The Treehouse Tapes in 1988 won them a major-label deal with Columbia Records the next year. A three-song promotional EP, We Die Young, was released in July 1990, spawning the hard-rock radio hit in the title track, followed by their first full-length effort, Facelift, in August of that year.
The album was a landmark in contemporary hard rock, mixing the over-the-top guitar heroics of the previous decade with grinding tempos. Staley’s rumbling vocals were hypnotic, ominously singing lines such as “Love, sex, pain, confusion, suffering/ You’re there crying/ I feel not a thing/ Drilling my way deeper in your head/ Sinking, draining, drowning, bleeding, dead” on the track “Confusion.”
The album produced a bona fide hit with a song that bore the band’s soon-to-be hallmark music signature, “Man in the Box.” It was inspired by a story Staley reportedly overheard about how veal were raised in tiny spaces, and it combines his haunted vocals with Cantrell’s fuzzed-out, choppy guitar. Other songs, such as “Sea of Sorrow” and “Bleed the Freak,” set out the template for Staley’s emerging creative voice: a morbidly disaffected social outcast fighting to survive in mainstream society.
AIC hit the road for their first U.S. tour that year, followed by a summer swing with Anthrax, Slayer and Megadeth the next summer under the title Clash of the Titans. They were back in March 1992 with a largely acoustic four-song EP called Sap, which featured the vocals of Ann Wilson of Heart and Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell. Thanks to the smash success of Nirvana’s Nevermind and the inclusion of the AIC song “Would?” on the soundtrack of the grunge movie “Singles” in the summer of 1992, Columbia began marketing AIC to both metal and alternative fans, which greatly increased the group’s fanbase.
Work on their second full-length, Dirt, began in Los Angeles on the same day riots erupted in that city, postponing the sessions for two weeks. The resulting music was another bleak manifesto from the now commercially successful, Grammy-nominated group. While Staley sang about the ravages of drug addiction and self-destruction (“Junkhead,” “God Smack,” “Sickman,” “Angry Chair”), Cantrell attempted to make peace with his father through the dramatic Vietnam-themed epic “Rooster.”
The album was influential in a number of ways. Singer/songwriter Ryan Adams and the hard-rock band Fuel have covered “Down in a Hole,” and rockers Godsmack chose their name from a song with that title.
After the album’s release, Starr, then struggling with drug problems, was replaced by former Ozzy Osbourne bassist Mike Inez. Though rumors of Staley’s drug issues were rampant at the time, the band successfully hit the road as part of the third Lollapalooza tour in 1993, and Dirt went on to sell more than 3 million copies.
Another EP of mostly acoustic tunes, Jar of Flies, was released in January 1994. It features two of the group’s most iconic songs: the power ballads “I Stay Away” and “No Excuses.” Staley broke off for a tour and album by his side project, Mad Season, in 1995, and AIC came back later that year with a self-titled album that debuted at #1 on the Billboard chart. But, as with Jar of Flies, there was no tour to support the album, and a long period of inactivity followed its release.
They got together for their first live show in three years for MTV’s “Unplugged” in April 1996, an intense performance that was released on CD in July 1996. With the exception of a few opening gigs for Kiss that summer, the “Unplugged” show would be the final time the group performed live.
Cantrell released his solo debut, Boggy Depot, in 1998, with contributions from Inez and Kinney, but Staley was replaced by Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan on Mad Season’s second album. A four-disc box set featuring rare and previously released AIC material entitled Music Bank was released in 1999 and a live album followed a year later. Staley became a recluse, rarely seen or heard from until news of his death emerged in early April 2002, when he was found dead of an overdose of cocaine and heroin at the age of 34, almost eight years to the day after Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain’s suicide.
Cantrell continued to work solo, while Inez joined Slash’s Snakepit, Black Label Society and the short-lived grunge supergroup Spys 4 Darwin. Kinney joined his former bandmates in 2005 for a benefit concert for tsunami relief, and the three original members regrouped under the AIC banner in 2006 with Comes With the Fall’s William DuVall on vocals.
The re-formed bandreleased Black Gives Way to Blue in September 2009.
The original AIC had a short-but-crucial period of creativity that helped reshape the face of heavy metal in the 1990s after the excess and pop trash of the late 1980s L.A. glam-rock scene. Their nihilistic, brooding tone and dark edge helped inspire a new generation of bands, from Creed and Godsmack to Theory of a Deadman, the Deftones and Staind, and their songs remain a staple of hard-rock radio to this day.
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