Yer Metal Is OIde: Alice In Chains – Alice In Chains

Seattle rock legends Alice In Chains may not strictly qualify as metal, but they are widely regarded within the metal community, especially compared to the other big name bands of the famed grunge era, which tend to polarize metalheads. Perhaps it’s the blanket of sorrow and darkness enveloping their sound, coupled with the sludge and doom influences, that compliment their hard rock core and melancholic acoustic forays. Although Alice In Chains are still chugging along admirably to the present day, it was the band’s ’90s heyday and era with doomed frontman Layne Staley that remains the classic and defining era of the band. Two Alice In Chains albums were up for the anniversary treatment in 2020. Rather than focus on their superb 1990 debut Facelift, I’ve taken the left field route by focusing on their underrated 1995 album, Alice In Chains, commonly referred to as Tripod, due to the presence of the album’s three legged cover star.

Perhaps the heaviest effort of the band’s career, Tripod is a bleak, but far from hopeless album, featuring an addictive batch of grinding sludge rock tunes, offset with mellower and vaguely experimental material. Conceived in a difficult period for the band, Tripod was largely a fractured recording. Staley was in the fiercest grip of his long term heroin addiction, making it incredibly difficult for Alice In Chains to function as a touring or recording act. Jerry Cantrell, Mike Inez and Sean Kinney largely operated separately during the recording process, due to Staley’s ongoing struggles and unreliability. Nevertheless, Staley was able to write the bulk of lyrics for the album, and his performance is as heartfelt, pained, and haunting as always.

Tripod is bolstered by four instantly recognizable singles, with Cantrell’s songwriting and vocals dominating and highlighted on the aptly titled opener “Grind,” dark, melancholic mastery of “Heaven Beside You,” and infectious,  melodicism of acoustic closer, “Over Now.” Meanwhile, Staley’s intoxicating vocal melodies take charge on discordant chugger ‘Again.” Like on other Alice In Chains albums, the big hits are superbly complimented by the strength of the deeper cuts. Dark, heavy and delightfully sludgy rockers highlight the remaining bulk of the material. Cantrell’s underrated guitar work shines on the dreary, druggy vibes of “Sludge Factory,” the beefy grooves of doomy gem “God Am” packs a satisfyingly hooky wallop, while Staley penned personal favorite ‘Head Creeps” has both earworm hooks and killer grooves. Meanwhile “Nothin’ Song” is unlike anything the band had written before, and is a catchy, oddly upbeat and melodic gem.

Although not quite as focused, or possessing the highlight reel consistency of their classic Dirt LP, or emotive, haunting brilliance of Jar of Flies, Tripod is more often than not a compelling, adventurous, and infectious dark horse of the Staley-era. Sure, it doesn’t always work. At over an hour in length, some fat could certainly be trimmed over a few songs, such as the divisive ‘Frogs,” which has some interesting ideas but goes off the deep end during its meandering later half. Nevertheless, even the slightly lesser lights are still solid. Production and individual performances are first rate. Inez and Kinney form a formidable and underrated rhythm section, while Cantrell leads from the front, once again writing the lion’s share of material. Cantrell continued to come into his own vocally, with his increased and stirring contributions and harmonies. His textured and memorable guitar work is strong throughout, from rousing acoustic melodies, to widdly embellishments, solid solos, and chunky riffs.

I carry enormous enthusiasm for the Seattle rock scene of the famed late ’80s, early ’90s era, from the big guns to the lesser lights. Within and outside of this scene, Alice In Chains remain one of my all time favorite bands. Alice in Chains is an album I hold close to the heart and is a compelling studio companion piece to Mad Season‘s 1995 opus, Above. Although the band were essentially on the rocks due to Staley’s addiction, the album comes together with surprising cohesion and consistency, despite being a tad overlong. Staley’s unique, incredibly haunting and emotive vocals shine through his personal pain and struggles to complete the album. However, Cantrell deserves extra praise for gluing Alice in Chains together during difficult times and playing a key role in Tripod‘s understated success.

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