Why Alice In Chains Was Never a Grunge Band

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Does “grunge” as a genre actually mean anything? 

Grunge’s “big four” were worlds away from each other musically: Nirvana was a punk band, Pearl Jam played straight rock and roll and Soundgarden was artsy hard rock. 

Alice in Chains might complete the big 4…but they were never a grunge band. 

When looking through their back catalog, Alice’s music was more indebted to metal than anything alternative. Despite being in the same neighborhood as Nirvana, the heaviness behind “We Die Young” and the dark atmosphere of their music was metal’s natural response to the Seattle sound.

Though AIC repped for Seattle, they were always proud of their metal credentials. Before Jerry Cantrell started Alice, he had been down to Dallas to play in a friend’s band, where he met up with Dimebag Darrell of Pantera. His admiration for Dime was clear, Cantrell saying (18:35),

“I’m a fan of anyone who’s a master at their instrument but more a fan of someone who’s in touch with some innate thing and Dime is one of those guys. We were around the same age and became friends. I saw him play and I was a fan of his from the first time I saw him.”

Before Alice In Chains had a full-length LP out, they cut their teeth playing some of the first Clash of the Titans tours with Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax.

Thrash fans weren’t down with what they brought though, with Scott Ian remembering (26:00), 

“Those dudes got pelted with more shit than I’ve ever seen anyone get pelted with. People were throwing beer at them, buying more beer, and throwing that beer at Alice in Chains. Never once did they back down. They took that shit with middle fingers flying.”

Regardless of fan reception, Kerry King was complimentary of Alice’s early years, especially of their single “Them Bones” saying,

Those dudes were untouchable on their first two records, they were really vibing as a band and Layne Staley was just a superstar. On Clash of the Titans, we started going out to watch the entire set every night. It was just one of those moments,

While they didn’t go over well with the thrash crowd, everyone got in on the action when Facelift came out, as Scott Ian remembers,

“You know when ‘Man in the Box’ came out a month or two after that tour ended, everyone who threw beer at them went out and bought that record.”

Alice In Chains’ appeal reformed more than just thrash fans. On one of Alice’s first supporting tours, they went out with Van Halen at the suggestion of Sammy Hagar after he heard “Man in the Box.” Hagar knew the tides were turning though saying,

It came out of fear a little bit. Not bad fear, but nervousness. I said, ‘Let’s get ’em on the damn show, that way their fans will know that we’re cool!”

It was one of the first times Alice In Chains got approval by their heroes. After the tour wrapped up, Jerry Cantrell arrived home to find a garage full of brand-new gear, personally gifted by Eddie Van Halen.

Aside from the breakout single, metalheads were paying attention to the heavier side of the record. “We Die Young’s” massive riff was undeniable for any fan of heavy music and “Love Hate Love” showcased how different and vulnerable Layne Staley’s vocals were from the rest of their peers.

Even their unplugged work is entirely indebted to heavy metal, as much as metalheads might protest the band’s turns to acoustic arrangements. .

On Jar of Flies, “Whale and Wasp” sounds like a kind of washed-out instrumental Tony Iommi would be proud to call his own. The gentle groove of Cantrell’s melody is extremely similar to what you’d find on songs like “Solitude” or “Orchid” in between classic Sabbath cuts.

Layne Staley’s voice, obviously, is an element to the band separating them from any categorization.

Although Staley did have that distinctive rasp in common with someone like Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam, he was more interested in belting out intense song-stealing vocals.

Throughout Dirt, Staley shows his range as a metal vocalist. “Sickman”’s vocal sounds like the beginning of a horror movie, and “Rain When I Die” is the ‘90s rock equivalent of Staley’s Bruce Dickinson scream. 

Despite their closer sonic proximity to heavy metal, Alice never shied away from putting on for the Seattle scene. On their first EP Sap, they had guest contributions from Mark Arm of Mudhoney and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden on a handful of tracks.

As the band’s star rose outside of Seattle, their heavy metal friends became much more involved in their music, like Tom Araya of Slayer lending a hand during the Dirt sessions.

By 1994, Grunge’s popularity began to wane but Alice In Chains wasn’t stopping.

Though the self-titled “dog record” is considered the beginning of the end for the Staley era, it features their heaviest material to date. Compared to Pearl Jam, the sound of “Grind” is much more gnarly than anything off of Ten. 

By the time the band got to playing Unplugged, they were fully accepted by bands like Metallica, who were there at the taping and led to Mike Inez writing “Friends don’t let friends get friends’ haircuts” on his bass in reference to their Load image.

After Layne Staley’s passing, there was little hope that the classic lineup would reunite for anything. 

Once they started jamming with William DuVall from Comes With the Fall, there seemed to be hope for a reunion. Now with years removed from the grunge scene, they were free to be the metal band they wanted to be. 

Across their 2009 album Black Gives Way to Blue, the band explored much heavier textures, like the bending riff that kicks off “Check My Brain.”

In the transition, DuVall had a seething set of pipes perfect for some gritty material on “Last of My Kind.”

Even on their latest records, Alice is doubling down on the heaviness, even verging on stoner rock on parts of The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here. Over time, the band took the meaning of their song “Sludge Factory” pretty seriously. 

Alice aren’t ready to stop exploring their metal credentials either. 

In the past few years, Cantrell has appeared on albums like Deftones’ Gore, where he contributed guitars to the song “Phantom Bride.”

While grunge has remained a relic of the ‘90s, Alice in Chains have continued to innovate no matter what decade they’re in. Because they were never meant to be pigeonholed into one category to begin with. 

They may have had grunge-adjacent songs and may have come out at the same time Nirvana made it big, but Alice in Chains is a metal band through and through. Although grunge rock may not have survived the ‘90s, Alice have become the elder statesmen of classic metal. 

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