On 25 years of Alice In Chains’ EP masterpiece
I remember reading an article in some music industry publication in 1993 stating that the “grunge” boom of 1992 was now “over,” last year’s news, and that it was time to move on to other things.
And then Nirvana released In Utero. Pearl Jam released Vs. Alice in Chains released Jar of Flies. And Soundgarden released Superunknown. And they all went to No. 1, which gave me a bit of a chuckle. Grunge is “over,” eh? Not quite!
But it is fair to say that Alice in Chains was at a crossroads at the time Jar of Flies was released. Their previous album, Dirt (1992), had lifted the band to stardom — but there were unexpected consequences. Substance abuse had become a dark cloud hovering over the band; bassist Mike Starr was fired in early 1993 in part due his drug use (he was replaced by Mike Inez), while heroin steadily increased its insidious grip on lead singer Layne Staley. Heart’s Ann Wilson, who brought in Staley to provide a harmony vocal in 1993 for a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” on their album Desire Walks On, later wrote that drugs had already “taken away part of Layne.”
Alice drummer Sean Kinney admitted to writer Greg Prato that it was a “pretty bleak” period for the band. But the Jar of Flies sessions helped provide what he called “a nice pick-me-up. It was like ‘Cool, we’re moving forward and we’re moving on. We’re still here and shit’s getting better.’” No one had any songs ready when the sessions began, so the band settled in for a week’s worth of jamming, recording from September 7 to 14, 1993, with mixing completed by September 22.
The band came up with seven tracks. Overall, there’s a more restrained, acoustic feel to the record than the more bludgeoning power of Dirt, though the sentiments are just as gloomy; “My gift of self is raped,” Staley matter-of-factly notes in “Nutshell.” A song like “I Stay Away” has those insinuating, loopy vocal harmonies (courtesy of Staley and guitarist Jerry Cantrell) that were Alice in Chains’ most distinctive feature, with a string section (violins, viola, cello), giving this particular track a more anthemic feel. But the band also varied the formula by serving up an instrumental, the mournful “Whale & Wasp,” with Cantrell’s guitar work sounding something like Brian May’s with Queen. Cantrell’s mellower voice also takes over the lead vocal on “No Excuses” and “Don’t Follow.”
On its release in January 1994, Jar of Flies became the first EP to hit the top of the album charts. It was a much needed boost for the band, but by that summer, Staley’s struggles with his addiction had progressed to the point that the band pulled out of a planned tour with Metallica and a slot at Woodstock, and Alice in Chain was officially on “hiatus.” They eventually reconvened to record one more album (1995’s Alice in Chains), but played the last show with Staley on July 3, 1996 in Kansas City, Missouri. Seven years later, Staley was dead at age 34 (and Mike Starr succumbed to his own drug issues in 2011).
Lacking a higher profile number like “Man in the Box,” “Would?” or “Grind,” Jar of Flies is somewhat overlooked in the Alice in Chains catalog. What better time than its 25th anniversary to revisit this recording, which shows Alice in Chains setting aside their demons, stretching their legs creatively, and coming together as a band for the simple, pure joy of making music.