ALICE IN CHAINS (1987–2002). Jerry Cantrell (guitar), Layne Staley (vocals), Mike Starr (bass, 1987–92), Sean Kinney (drums), Mike Inez (bass, 1992-present).
One of the most successful heavy bands in the era of grunge, Seattle’s Alice in Chains was perhaps the best answer to the question, “What happened to metal after grunge came to town?” Hailing from Seattle, the birthplace of grunge, Alice in Chains had one foot in the post-punk grunge camp and another in that of heavy metal, with their unapologetically heavy guitars and unique harmonies giving them more traditionally mainstream appeal than many of their Seattle-based brethren. This split personality also signified different musical orientations within the group and would ultimately lead to tensions that kept the band from developing to their full commercial and creative potential.
The impetus for the group went back to Staley’s high school days when he had a group called Alice n Chains. After graduation, Staley hooked up with guitarist Cantrell in 1987 to form a new incarnation of the band, now called Alice in Chains. Bassist Starr and drummer Sean Kinney joined shortly thereafter. After a period of playing clubs in the Northwest, the band was signed by Columbia Records in 1989. The band was marketed as a metal band, and following their debut album, Facelift, went on the road as a support band for Van Halen, Iggy Pop, and Poison. The album became a hit, earning gold status within a year of its release. Shortly thereafter, the band released its Sap EP, which was also well-received.
Before the release of the band’s sophomore album, the cataclysmic event that was Nirvana’s juggernaut Nevermind album hit the music world. Nirvana’s immense success signaled a sea change in popular music and triggered the wholesale removal of metal bands (especially “MTV” hair metal bands) from the Billboard charts and their placement on the endangered genres list. Seattle subsequently became a magnet for record companies looking for the next Nirvana, and the capital of what would soon be called grunge.
Seeing the writing on the wall, Columbia changed their game plan for Alice in Chains, and began marketing the group as an alternative band. The band had a new song, “Would,” placed in the Seattle-set film Singles, which built anticipation for their forthcoming second album, Dirt. Dirt was released in the fall of 1992 and was well received, ultimately selling three million copies. Its bleak lyrics didn’t
seem to hinder its sales and in fact fit well into the aesthetic of the alternative scene. Nonetheless, the album’s expression of the bleak existence of drug addiction, especially in the songs “God Smack,” “Junkhead,” and “Hate to Feel,” gave rise to the rumors—ultimately proven true—that Staley was dealing with drug addiction. The band denied the rumors and toured in support of the album, most notably as part of the third Lollapalooza tour in 1993. Bassist Starr quit the band during this period, citing exhaustion from touring and the desire to spend more time with his family. He was replaced by Mike Inez.
Despite the drug rumors (and reality) Alice in Chains was doing well commercially, with Dirt going three times platinum. In 1994 the band released their Jar of Flies EP which was the first EP to dominate the album charts. The band returned with their third full-length album in 1995, simply entitled Alice in Chains. Although the album debuted at number one, the band declined to tour behind it, giving rise to more rumors of Staley’s addiction, which proved to be true. In 1996, the band managed to deliver a live performance on MTV Unplugged, which was released as an album later that year.
Cantrell later released a solo album, Boggy Depot, in 1998, and later explained that he did so since he wasn’t able to get Staley to work on Alice in Chains material. The band would remain dormant for the next several years, even as their label, Columbia, put out a box set, a live album, and greatest hits collection of the band’s material.
Finally, the other shoe fell, and it was announced in April of 2002 that Layne Staley had been found dead in his apartment, the result of an overdose of cocaine and heroin (Bogdanov, et al. 2002).
Discography: Facelift (Columbia, 1990); Dirt (Columbia, 1992); Jar of Flies (Columbia, 1994); Alice in Chains (Columbia, 1995); Unplugged [live] (Columbia, 1996); Live (Columbia, 2000); Nothing Safe (Columbia, 1999).