HELMET – MEANTIME (1992)

ALICE IN CHAINS – JAR OF FLIES (1994)

January 25th, 1994, Alice In Chains released the Jar Of Flies EP through Columbia Records. Jar Of Flies, as a concept, wasn’t anything new for Alice In Chains. The band had shown their more introspective, acoustic side before with the Sap EP released on February 4th, 1992. That EP showed Alice In Chains to be a far more versatile band than many would have thought. The crushing brilliance of Facelift didn’t suggest they had it in them to create genuinely beautiful, stripped-back acoustic fare. But they did just that. It also didn’t seem awkward or out of place for the band to attempt such a sonic U-Turn. They took it in their stride, as did their audience.

Fast forward two years, almost to the day, January 25th 1994, and the release of Jar of Flies. An EP that picked up the mantle where Sap left off but upped the game considerably. Alice In Chains had done and seen a lot in the two years that separated Sap from Jar of Flies.

Their magnum opus Dirt, released in September 1992, catapulted the band into the mainstream, rocketed them to the top of charts worldwide, and surrounded them with an untouchable sense of infallibility. The band could do no wrong. Explosive live performances and a rabid, ever-growing fanbase couldn’t get enough.

Despite this, cracks were beginning to appear within the band. With the dark spectre of addiction always looming, all was not well in Wonderland. In retrospect, the band’s travails were laid out clearly for all to see in the lyrics of the songs. We all knew deep down something wasn’t quite right. But their music’s sheer brilliance and power made you second guess any fractures within.

Alice in Chains toured the world extensively in 1993, promoting Dirt. During this time, bassist Mike Starr was fired for his “drug use”, which in itself seemed odd considering the reputation of all band members. Ozzy Osbourne bassist Mike Inez joined the band as his replacement.

The members returned home to Seattle after their show-stopping performances on the 1993 Lollapalooza tour, only to be evicted from their residence after failing to pay the rent. Homeless, the band moved into London Bridge Studio in Seattle.

During Alice in Chains’ June/August 1993 appearance at Lollapalooza, guitarist Jerry Cantrell called record producer Toby Wright with a proposal to collaborate on new material. Wright booked ten days at the London Bridge Studio, a place now rightly revered, having facilitated the recordings of Pearl Jam’s Ten, Soundgarden’s Louder Than Love, Temple Of The Dog, Mother Love Bone’s Shine EP and Alice In Chains own Facelift and Dirt, among many many more legendary recordings.
Despite Cantrell’s assurances, the band had yet to write songs before the session began.

Drummer Sean Kinney said, “After playing loud music for a year, we’d come home, and the last thing we wanted to do was crank up the amps right away. We did Jar of Flies to see how it was to record with new bassist Mike Inez. “We just went into the studio with no songs written to check out the chemistry. It all fell into place. The sounds and the tones were really good. We thought it would be a waste not to put that material out.”

The first session took place on September 7th, 1993. Layne Staley said the band “just wanted to go into the studio for a few days with our acoustic guitars and see what happened. We never really planned for the music we made at that time to be released. But the record label heard it, and they really liked it. For us, it was just the experience of four guys getting together in the studio and making some music.”

The album’s sessions lasted 14–18 hours daily, and recording was complete within several days. Assistant engineer Jonathan Plum described the sessions as “exhaustive.”

Columbia Records released Jar of Flies on January 25th, 1994. The album was promoted by two singles, “No Excuses” and “I Stay Away.” “No Excuses” reached #1 on the Album Rock Tracks chart, becoming the first single by the band to do so. Cantrell admitted that “we couldn’t believe that it did so well” and that “the success of Jar of Flies showed us that we could do what we liked and that other people would like it too.”

Opening with the gorgeous, tumbling bass line of “Rotten Apple,” new bassist Mike Inez introduces himself with a haunting refrain. Jerry Cantrell’s talk-box guitar effect wraps around the bass melody with exaggerated vowels and a slightly sinister edge. Layne Staley enters with a melancholy but breathtakingly beautiful vocal melody; he punctuates a lilting refrain of “Hey ah na na” with spiralling observations on his state of affairs, “Innocence is over/Ignorance is spoken/Confidence is broken/Sustenance is stolen/Arrogance is potent.”

“Nutshell” has become an all-time Alice In Chains classic. Sean Kinney’s rolling snare drum pattern perfectly complimented its mournful acoustic guitar and deeply melodic bass. Layne delivers a commanding vocal performance full of pathos and regret while Jerry’s outro solo is magical.

“I Stay Away” soars with cinematic strings and a passionate vocal from Layne, while “No Excuses” is a sunlit, upbeat romp hung on a stunning drum pattern. “Whale and Wasp” is a passionate instrumental filled with Jerry Cantrell’s memorable guitar hooks.

The first half of “Don’t Follow” is sung by Jerry. Its reflective, sorrowful mood balances a fine line with a sense of hope—guest musician David Atkinson’s harmonica lilts and weaves between Jerry’s whisper-light vocal delivery. The song takes an unexpected turn around the two-minute-thirty mark as it picks up pace and intensity while opening up with a lighter major chord progression. David Atkinson rips some stunning harmonica passages as Layne takes over from Jerry with a soulful, bluesy intensity.

“Swing On This” closes the EP. Mike Inez lays down a jazzy, chromatic bassline to compliment Sean Kinney’s swinging drum pattern. Layne and Jerry’s vocals melt into each other before the chorus rips a sinister refrain as Layne implores, “Let me be, I’m alright, Can’t you see, I’m just fine, Little skinny, okay, I’m asleep anyway.”

Jar Of Flies entered the Billboard 200 chart at number one, with sales of over 141,000 during the first week of its release, thus becoming the first ever EP and the first Alice in Chains release to top the charts. It was the only EP ever to gain this distinction until 2004, when the Collision Course mashup EP by Jay-Z and Linkin Park also achieved the number-one spot ten years later.

Selling more than two million copies during its first year, it was later certified triple platinum in 1995 and quadruple platinum in 2022, confirming that while Jar Of Flies may be a low-key stunner filled with achingly gorgeous, harrowingly sorrowful songs, it resonated with millions across the world.

Alice In Chains reinforced the depth of their abilities with Jar Of Flies. Proving the band’s sound and songwriting could flourish in any setting. Rarely does the material of bands as heavy and visceral as Alice In Chains translate so effortlessly to an acoustic setting and thrive doing so. With Jar Of Flies, Sap, and later Unplugged, Alice In Chains proved themselves to be a rare, unique and brilliant commodity. A band with crushing, emotional power at both ends of the sonic spectrum.