Alice in Chains is a hard rock band that was formed in 1987 in Seattle, Washington, United States. Drawing equally from the heavy riffing of metal and the gloomy strains of what would become grunge, the band developed a bleak, nihilistic sound that balanced grinding riffs with subtly textured acoustic moments. They were hard enough for metal fans, but their dark subject matter and punk-fueled attack placed them among the front ranks of the Seattle-based grunge bands. This dichotomy helped the group soar to critical acclaim and multi-platinum status with their first albums, 1990's 'Facelift' and 1992's 'Dirt', yet it also divided them. Guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter Jerry Cantrell always leaned toward the mainstream, while singer-songwriter Layne Staley felt fascinated with the seamy underground lyrically and musically. Such tension drove the band toward stardom in their early years. Following 'Dirt', however, Alice in Chains suffered from near-crippling internal tensions that kept the band off the road for the remainder of the 90s, and personal tragedy soon would strike.
The idea for the group arose from the band members' mutual interest in dark, powerful heavy metal and energetic rock music. Formed in 1987 by Staley, guitarist Jerry Cantrell, bassist Mike Starr, and drummer Sean Kinney, the outfit was first named “Alice N’ Chains” and featured a different image in terms of clothes and stage performances, although they still had a tough edge to their music. The guys later changed it to "Alice in Chains" as things came together. Combining the unique voice and intense delivery of Staley with the evocative songwriting and vocal harmonies of Cantrell, Alice in Chains created an immediately identifiable sound that also proved to be quite versatile as their repertoire grew to include both driving, angry rock songs and mellow acoustic compositions.
The unique vocal harmonies of Staley and Cantrell included at times overlapping passages and dual lead vocals. Alyssa Burrows has said the band's distinctive sound "came from Staley's vocal style and his lyrics dealing with personal struggles and addiction". Staley's songs were often considered "black" or "dark" as stated before, with themes such as drug abuse, depression, and suicide displayed, while Cantrell's lyrics dealt more with personal relationships. Both of them expressed a desire to convey a sense of reality and a powerful 'in-the-moment' feel in the band's music, with a big emphasis on strong guitar riffs.
Although Alice in Chains has attracted many genre labels over the years, Cantrell identifies his band as primarily metal with diverse influences blended in. He told the magazine 'Guitar World' in 1996: "We're a lot of different things... I don't quite know what the mixture is, but there's definitely metal, blues, rock and roll, maybe a touch of punk. The metal part will never leave, and I never want it to". Alice in Chains has cited musical influences such as Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Metallica as setting the path for their sound.
Cantrell's guitar style combines what Stephen Erlewine of Allmusic has called "pummeling riffs and expansive guitar textures" to create "slow, brooding minor-key grinds". While down-tuned, distorted guitars mixed with Staley's distinctive "snarl-to-a-scream" vocals appealed to many heavy metal and punk rock fans, the band also had "a sense of melody that was undeniable" in numerous songs, conveying the rebellious yet tuneful spirit of traditional "rock and roll" as Cantrell had remarked. Thus, Alice in Chains broke through to a mainstream audience outside of the metal underground in a big way in the 90s and onward, even though many other groups with perhaps less talented songwriting struggled.
The band found artistic and commercial success not long after their formation, but things really shifted into high gear through the release of 1992's 'Dirt', which displayed highly skilled work while also highlighting Staley’s increasingly apparent addiction to heroin. The band appeared on the successful Lollapalooza tour in 1993 and released the 'Jar of Flies' EP in 1994. However, the guys often found their attempts to follow up past successes in the studio or on the road hampered by Staley’s erratic, drug-fueled behaviour. That artist's compelling talents appeared matched by his strong personal demons. Former Ozzy Osbourne bassist Mike Inez came in to replace Starr, and the band would eventually record a third studio LP as well as undergo a famous performance on the 'MTV Unplugged' program that many would remember in rock history.
Ultimately, however, Alice in Chains would fail to maintain a consistent career in the post-grunge music world. The time around the turn of the millennium represented a shifting moment musically, with various genres outside of dark-sounding hard rock and metal getting spotlights in the mainstream. The band limped into hiatus when Cantrell turned his attention to solo projects, which garnered some critical praise and often included contributions from Kinney and Inez. Yet his personal work never received the same attention as that of Alice in Chains, the group's first two albums reliably selling well for years and years. Sadly, Staley finally succumbed to his afflictions when he overdosed in April 2002.
Although Alice in Chains never officially disbanded, Staley had become a recluse as the years had dragged on, rarely leaving his Seattle condominium following the death of his fiancée in 1996 (due to bacterial endocarditis). "Drugs worked for me for years", Staley told the magazine 'Rolling Stone' in 1996, "and now they're turning against me, now I'm walking through hell". In 1998, Staley briefly reunited with Alice in Chains to record two new songs, which were titled "Get Born Again" and "Died". Originally written for a Cantrell solo album, the songs were released in the fall of 1999 as a part of a box set called 'Music Bank'. The set contains a full 48 songs, including rarities, demos, and previous album tracks. The band also released a 15-track compilation titled 'Nothing Safe: Best of the Box', serving as a sampler for 'Music Bank'. The group's first greatest hits compilation also appeared. Another official release of note is a live album, simply titled 'Live', which was released on December 5, 2000.
Staley, found dead in his condominium on April 19, 2002, would be subject to an autopsy that revealed that he had died from a mixture of heroin and cocaine fourteen days previously. In his last interview, which was given months before his death, Staley admitted, "I know I'm near death, I did crack and heroin for years. I never wanted to end my life this way." Cantrell, shaken by the death of his friend and former band-mate, dedicated his 2002 solo album, titled 'Degradation Trip', to Staley's memory.
Jerry Cantrell, Mike Inez and Sean Kinney reformed and played shows in late 2005 and early 2006 with a variety of guest vocalists, including Billy Corgan, Pat Lachman, Wes Scantlin, Maynard James Keenan, Ann Wilson and Phil Anselmo. For their European and U.S. tours of mid-late 2006, William Duvall (Comes With The Fall) performed lead vocals.
Vocalist for Comes With the Fall, William DuVall, joined Alice in Chains as lead singer during the band's reunion concerts. Velvet Revolver and ex-Guns N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan also joined the band for the reunion tour, playing rhythm guitar on selected songs. Before the tour, Kinney mentioned in an interview that he would be interested in writing new material, but not as Alice in Chains. However, AliceinChains.com reported that the band has begun writing new material, with DuVall on lead vocals. In September 2009 the band released their first studio album since 1995. The album is called 'Black Gives Way to Blue' and was a critical success, being well received worldwide. During the last months of 2009, they toured Europe, selling out most shows.
Alice in Chains has sold more than twenty million albums in the United States (and an estimated 40 million worldwide), released two number-one albums and 19 top 40 singles, and has received six Grammy nominations. The band was ranked number 34 on VH1's 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock. Alice in Chains has had a large impact on many bands, such as Godsmack, who, according to Jon Wiederhorn of MTV, "have sonically followed Alice in Chains' lead while adding their own distinctive edge". Godsmack singer Sully Erna has also cited Layne Staley as his primary influence. Staind has covered Alice in Chains' song "Nutshell" live, which appears on the compilation The Singles: 1996-2006, and also wrote a song entitled "Layne", in Staley's dedication, on the album 14 Shades of Grey. Other bands that have been inspired by Alice in Chains include Taproot, Puddle of Mudd, Smile Empty Soul, Creed, Nickelback, Cold and Tantric. Metallica, who originally influenced Alice in Chains, in turn said they always wanted to tour with the band, citing Alice in Chains as a major influence on the vocal melodies for Metallica's eighth studio album St. Anger.
Photos of Alice in Chains can be found at their official site, www.AliceInChains.com. Photos of Jerry Cantrell can be found at his official site, www.JerryCantrell.com.
Mike Starr – bass, backing vocals (1987-1993) (deceased)
Layne Staley – lead vocals (1987–2002) (deceased)
Jerry Cantrell – lead guitar, vocals (1987–2002, 2005–present)
Sean Kinney – drums, percussion (1987–2002, 2005–present)
Mike Inez – bass, backing vocals (1993–2002, 2005–present)
William DuVall – lead vocals, rhythm guitar (2007-present)
Scott Olson – acoustic guitar (1996) (Unplugged performance)
Patrick Lachman – lead vocals (2005–2006)
Duff McKagan – rhythm guitar (Reunion tour)
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