August 21st, 1990, ALICE IN CHAINS released their debut album, Facelift, through Columbia Records. Casting our minds back to August 1990, the Rock N Roll landscape was still very much in the grip of ’80s excess. Many in the industry were clueless to the groundswell of interest the alternative rock scene was creating in the underground, even though, in a short thirteen months, rock music would be forever changed.
There are many reasons why Seattle became the fulcrum of this new, cutting-edge brand of rock. Chief among them was an abundance of once-in-a-lifetime talent who just so happened to be plying their trade simultaneously in the same area. As the 1980s drew to a close, the mainstream rock scene was awash with spandex, immaculately coiffed perms, music videos filled with scantily clad models draping themselves across cars, stages, stripper poles and band members. At the same time, songs as lyrically deep as a kiddies’ paddling pool were the order of the day.
As the ’80s drew to a close, that scene became exhausted and bloated. Coughing up one insipid, copycat band after the next, all touting a bevvy of saccharine ballads and conquest exaggerating “party” rockers. The purveyors of this scene would each wake up sometime around September 1991, open their curtains, and gaze out on a wasteland of Aqua Net hairspray tins and Day-Glo spandex. The music-buying public had grown tired of what they saw and heard and were ready for something new. The realism, brilliance and vibrancy of what was pouring out of the Pacific Northwest stood in stark contrast to what the status quo of LA was offering.
The version of Alice In Chains the world came to know formed in Seattle in 1987, born out of various early ’80s glam bands like Sleze, Alice’ N Chains and Diamond Lie. Members Layne Staley, Jerry Cantrell, Sean Kinney and Mike Starr quickly got to work developing their sound. The musical ecosystem in Seattle in the mid-’80s was not immune to the odd flirtation with the prevailing glam-metal winds of that time. But the geographical isolation and bleak, grey skies meant the music produced there was always tinged with an existential heaviness.
Since the release of their debut EP Screaming Life in 1987, Soundgarden had kicked the doors open for other Seattle bands and shown how vital, profound, visceral music could reach a dedicated fan base outside of their home state, all the while showing little regard for the current trends. Alice In Chains took some time to ferment their sound once their classic line-up had solidified.
Jerry Cantrell recalls how certain songs they wrote in their early days suggested the path they needed to take: “Some songs that we never released, pre ‘Facelift.’ felt as though we’d turned the corner. We’re of the same generation of those ’80s bands. So, I dug many of those bands, but that’s not where we ended up. That’s the point. You get inspired by other people and emulate them. Then, at some point, you start doing your thing, and one day, you look at each other and like, ‘Man! This is pretty cool.’ All of a sudden, you’ve got a sound, so you keep going. I could tell you the tune that changed our outlook, but it was pre ‘Facelift’ when we started to come into focus as a band. We were formed in December ’87, and ‘Facelift’ came out in ’90. The band developed within two years from nothing to that record…”
In 1988, local promoter Randy Hauser became aware of Alice in Chains at a concert and offered to pay for demo recordings. However, one day before the band was due to record at the Music Bank Studio in Seattle, police shut the place down during the biggest marijuana raid in the state’s history. The final demo, dubbed The Treehouse Tapes, found its way to managers Kelly Curtis and Susan Silver, who also managed Soundgarden.
Curtis and Silver passed the demo to Columbia Records A&R representative Nick Terzo, who set up an appointment with label president Don Ienner. Based on The Treehouse Tapes (sold by the band at shows), Ienner signed Alice in Chains to Columbia in 1989.
The band chose Dave Jerden to record, produce and mix the album. Before recording Facelift, Jerden had engineered and mixed albums by Jane’s Addiction, Social Distortion, The Rolling Stones, Herbie Hancock, Frank Zappa and Talking Heads. The first time Dave Jerden heard Alice In Chains, he thought they were a mess. It was 1988, and Dave had been given the band’s demo tape by an A&R friend at Sony. No producer wanted to touch them. But there was one song in which he heard the sound of the future.
“I forget which song it was, but it was the closest to the Alice In Chains we know now, with the drop-D tuning,” Jerden recalls. “I met with the band and told them what I thought, that their songs were a mess. But I also told Jerry Cantrell I liked what he was doing…”
When Alice In Chains entered the studio in 1989 to record Facelift, their music had taken on a dark realism. Heavy in both sound and message, the band were now creating highly emotive songs with devastating power and weight. Recorded at the legendary London Bridge Studios in Seattle, with additional recording done at Capitol Studios in Hollywood. The raw potential Jerden saw paid off once the band found their stride, “Facelift was where Alice In Chains found their style,” said Jerden. “And Man In The Box was the first song that introduced the world to the grunge sound. It was never a case of luck. That record was meant to be.”
The album opens with “We Die Young.” Layne Staley explained in 1991:” ‘We Die Young’ is about gang violence. That was something that was happening in Seattle, something that kinda opened our eyes. It just seemed like things were getting out of hand. Incidents where kids were getting shot and getting their tennis shoes ripped off their dead bodies. It just seems like these kids are dying at younger and younger ages and getting involved in gang activity.” It’s a crushing introduction to the band.
A dark and pummelling riff from Cantrell opens the proceedings. The band locks in with Staley menacingly delivering the lines “Down, down, down you’re rolling/Watch the blood float in the muddy sewer/Take another hit/And bury your brother…”
According to Jerry Cantrell, he was riding to a band rehearsal when he got the idea for the song. “On the bus, there were all of these 10, 11, 12-year-olds with beepers dealing drugs,” he said. “The sight of a young kid with drugs just scared me, which equalled We Die Young to me.”
“Man In The Box” is a boot-stomping masterpiece and the song that would catapult Alice In Chains into the mainstream. After Dave Jerden heard the Treehouse Demo, he told the band they should go in and record another demo of new songs. A few months later, he received a new six-track tape. One of the songs was Man In The Box, destined to become AIC’s breakthrough hit. “When I got that six-track demo, and it had Man In The Box and all the great songs from that first album, that’s when I really thought we could be on to something,” said Jerden.
When released as the second single from the album in January 1991, the song became a smash hit, helping Alice In Chains leapfrog Soundgarden and Nirvana to become grunge’s first superstars. It was also the song that propelled the sales of Facelift, as they became the first band from the Seattle scene to sell half a million records, opening the door for everyone to follow.
The band show no signs of letting up in quality or goosebump-inducing thrills as “Sea Of Sorrow” and “Bleed The Freak” drub the senses. On both songs, Cantrell and Staley’s voices harmonise beautifully. Mike Starr and Sean Kinney’s tight, dexterous rhythm section drives the vast dynamics. The opening four tracks of Facelift are a crushingly euphoric statement from a young band who had found their “sound” and were not afraid to deliver.
“I Can’t Remember” opens with a rich, malevolent acoustic guitar arpeggio. The verses groove with wah drenched guitar. Layne’s voice is expressive and filled with a sense of dread. The middle eighth opens up with Layne showing all of his range. “Love, Hate, Love” is a masterwork; the lyrics remain relevant for fans today. It’s a song that explores the complexity of emotions, the dark side of love, and the consequences of allowing hate to take over. Staley’s vocal histrionics during the song’s outro are simply staggering.
“It Ain’t Like That” bristles with its raked and droning guitar riff and Sabbath-esque chug of the verses. Layne and Jerry lift the chorus in harmony, singing, “See the cycle I’ve waited for/It ain’t like that anymore..” “Sunshine” has a glorious, languid mid-tempo groove and bluesy arpeggiated riff. Before returning to the verse tempo, the pre-chorus shifts gear to a major key blues shuffle. Unexpectedly, the song’s chorus drops to an even slower pace and a gorgeous vocal melody. Jerry Cantrell’s solo is, as always, memorable and note-perfect.
“Put You Down” has much in common with Mother Love Bone. Drawing from the same musical vein as Andrew Wood’s band. Alice In Chains had a darker and more ominous edge to their sound than MLB, but the similarities are still noticeable. “Confusion” is rife with jet-black dread. Its menacing, baleful verse gives way to an awe-inspiring chorus; Layne again proves his vocals’ incredible power and pitch-perfect choice of notes.
“I Know Somethin’ (Bout You)” opens with a clean, funk guitar riff, sounding like Living Colour might have written around that time. It’s a sound Alice In Chains would never dabble in again. Its verse, like “Put You Down”, has much in common with fellow Seattle greats Mother Love Bone. The song has a brilliant, infectious chorus. Jerry sings, “In my space, on your face, I tell you, I know something ’bout you…” As Layne wails, “On your face, I know something..” both voices weaving across each other with gripping proficiency. The song’s instrumental middle is jet-black in tone and utterly riveting.
The album ends with “The Real Thing”, a stunning prophecy of Staley’s future woes with substance abuse and addiction. “I messed around as a little boy/ I grew up, made the blade my new toy/ Friends said “Boy, with what you screwin’ around,” I said/”Don’t concern yourselves and just/ Gimme another blast” The songs tumbling riff and dark, jagged dynamics add an edge of your seat feeling to this story of a young man wilfully falling to the horrors of drug addiction.
“I grew up, went into rehab/ You know the doctors never did me no good/ They said “son, you’re gonna be a new man”/ I said “thank you very much/ And can I borrow fifty bucks?” Staley roars, “I’m Goin’ down the steps on a white line straight to nowhere..”
With Facelift, Alice In Chains made a statement. They ushered new realism into an ailing rock scene. They dealt with the darker side of the human condition but in an extraordinarily poetic, empathic and profound way. Nobody sounded like Alice In Chains.
In 1990/1991, anyone who heard them and Facelift were instant fans. Even known curmudgeons like Slayer’s Kerry King sat up and took note after hearing AIC and Layne’s stunning voice, “Those dudes were untouchable on their first two records; they were vibing as a band, and Layne was just a superstar. They played on the US 1990 package tour Clash Of The Titans, and the first couple of dates, we’d be backstage going, ‘Who is that with that f*cking voice?’ And we started going out to watch the entire set every night. It was just one of those moments.”
The chemistry and musical abilities of the band were undeniable. With Facelift, they set the bar higher than a Willie Nelson/Snoop Dogg smoke-off..! As far as debut albums go, it’s rarely been matched. Alice In Chains played a significant part in altering the musical landscape of the ’90s.
Staley’s influential, godlike vocal abilities can only be compared to his fellow Seattle legend, Chris Cornell, for the sheer range and emotional wallop. Cantrell’s riff writing and lush backing vocals are breath-taking. Sean Kinney’s distinctive, thunderous drumming and deft cymbal work is the engine that propels the band. While Mike Starr’s powerful, melodic bass provided a monstrous foundation for Staley and Cantrell to soar.
Legendary album, legendary band…! Essential…!