Was the debut LP from this Seattle institution grunge genesis or a hair metal hangover?
Facelift didn’t know what it was, and that in itself was exciting. But rarely does it guarantee that unrealized debut albums sound good.
The term “grunge” was coined by Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt in 1987, the same year that Alice in Chains were born, but they spelled it Alice ‘n’ Chains at the time and from that tiny but important distinction you could guess what they sounded like. Since Layne Staley and Axl Rose had nothing in common as singers, and ‘80s-style metal was hitting its awkward stage in 1990, the change was inevitable. But Alice in Chains also had the least to do with Sub Pop of any eventual multiplatinum band that would come to be associated with grunge, and they spent more time on the road with the likes of Metallica and Van Halen.
From their corny Photoshop-Cronenberg album covers and slimy Goosebumps-style logo, you could tell Alice in Chains were significantly more metal in look and feel. The garage rock that permeates Mudhoney and the ennui by which Nirvana turned punk do not have much basis in Alice in Chains’ urgent sludge. Pearl Jam’s arena rock perhaps came closest, but they were the least crunchy, least power-chord-beholden of these bands, even incorporating funk and country sounds as early as 1991’s Ten and 1993’s vs. respectively, and Alice was their diametric opposite, always chugging and oozing and sludging, in the glow of uncool reverb and harmonized guitar leads that had more in common with, like, Warrant or Whitesnake, even if their dark subject matter and predilection for Slayer-ugly riffs and turgid vocal layering did not.
In their way, Alice did have more overtly honky-tonk material than Pearl Jam, especially Jerry Cantrell’s “Don’t Follow” and maybe even the tearjerker special “Nutshell,” and Facelift’s silly-putty approach to this not-yet-named genre did lead to the fascinatingly James Brown-like “(I Know Somethin’) ‘Bout You” and the Guns ‘n’ Roses choogle of “Put You Down.” But their sound is more of a ball and chain than their peers’, so it’s always obvious when they Do Something Else, i.e. 1993’s stoopid-jazz “Swing on This.” Their debut album is simultaneously their freest expedition before all that was in stone, and the limited musings of a metal-esque outfit whose first words to the public were “Scary’s on the wall / Scary’s on his way.”
Crude enough lyrically to be the Lone Rangers from a comedy like Airheads (“I live tomorrow / You I’ll not follow / As we wallow / In a sea of sorrow”), Facelift’s tonal variety and the surprising heft of bullseye choruses like “Bleed the Freak” and “Confusion” are still impressive 30 years later. As sheer aural constructions, if you’ll pardon dated bits like the inept drum solos before each chorus in “Sea of Sorrow,” only a few songs (“I Can’t Remember,” “It Ain’t Like That”) fail to distinguish themselves with some kind of hook, whether it’s a tasty lick or arresting dynamic shift. Facelift’s biggest success, the PETA-friendly breakthrough hit “Man in the Box” essentially created the grunge blueprint with its wah-drenched junt-junt one-chord blocks of white noise that sufficed as a riff.
VIDEO: Alice In Chains “Man In The Box”
But Facelift is also dominated by the departed Layne Staley in a way that no later Alice was because he was too dysfunctional. His command over “Man in the Box” and “Love, Hate, Love” was authoritative enough to present his finest and most chilling vocal performances. By 1992’s Vantablack Dirt, admittedly a massive improvement on Facelift sonically and songfully, Staley was already co-dependent (there’s no other word for it) on Jerry Cantrell’s hypnotically symbiotic harmonizing, and Cantrell was behind the strongest melodies. By 1995’s eponymous swan song for the Staley years, he sounded feeble and crumbled, which of course this ugly band used to their perverse sonic advantage on pools of deterioration like “Sludge Factory” and “God Am.”
Facelift is pretty dark — everything they’ve done is, save for a couple of faux-acoustic EPs — but between their not fully shook-off glammy beginnings and Staley’s actual youthful-sounding larynx, it’s his healthiest-sounding showcase, a man in control of his demons rather than resigning himself to exploiting them. A morbid, immature man for sure; Axl’s influence is apparent in a love threnody that climaxes in “I want to peel the skin from your face.”
But a powerful voice and underrated melodist with life in him, in his least claustrophobic showcase. He wasn’t yet a man in a box.
AUDIO/VIDEO: Alice In Chains Facelift (full album)