Addicted to noice, January 1996
It's getting awfully hard to tell whether or not Layne Staley is happy to be alive. Even though Alice in Chains' debut album, Facelift, opened with the bleak "We Die Young," the song had a sense of hope to it a spark, a purpose, the rebellion of youth.
Long entwined with the perils of heroin addiction, the Chains' frontman seems to be chronicling a long downward spiral from which there seems to be no escape. Lest we condemn him to the kind of untimely death met by his peers, like Hole's Kristen Pfaff or Blind Melon's Shannon Hoon, Staley warns us in "Grind," the opening track of Alice in Chains' new self- titled album, "You'd be well advised/Not to plan my funeral before the body dies."
Even so, his drug addiction and struggle with the issues of life and death are ever-present on Alice in Chains. "Next week I'll be 28/I'm still young/Envy me" he mumbles at the end of "Frogs," but during "Shame In You," he sings "I'm still trying/Concentrating on dyin'." Other refrains beat against the constant craving for another high, as with "No more time/Jus one more time" in "Head Creeps," asking the dependency to "Pick at me slow, pain fiend/Suck me through barbed screen."
Staley's lyrics, however are only part of the story. The album is riddled with dark moments, spinning, out-of control guitars, hypnotic and chilling melodies, stark solos, psychedelic vocals and fitful rhythms. There are few bright moments on this latest work, and those that exist do so only with a seamy reality writing beneath their surface. The bluesy, pared-down "Heaven Beside You" may sound like gentle toe-tapper, but the chorus reveals the truth; "Like the coldest winter chill/Heaven beside you ... hell within." "Over Now," another acoustic -guitar-driven piece, finds relief in hindsight and karma; "Guess it's over now/I seem alive somehow ... We pay our debt sometime."
The guitar work of Jerry Cantrell is, as always, artful and tense, playing off Staley's despair as if it were a filter for his own melodies. On this album, Cantrell tends towards the low end of the spectrum, growling along like a bad tremor, only moving upwards in scales of madness, in chills of despair. Bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney pull everything together in spastic rhythms and rough-edged, booming heartbeats. The result is a collection of melodieswhich are at once disturbing and depressing, beating strong with fists of life and slipping downwards slowly and persistently downwards.
The album, for all its taut despair, is at times redundant; the lyrics strained in their rhymes, the melodies droning on in such a way that it's hard to tell when one song ends and the next begins. Like the endless space between highs, Alice in Chains goes on and on, not letting the listener free until the closing strains of "Over Now." Though this effect may be intentional, a recreation of these tense and everlasting emotional states, it's also weary and draining.
Staley seems hooked on his own pain. The blissful high and nod is long gone, and all that's left are fragments: of horror, of despair, of need, of obsession. Is the state of Alice in Chains' music the result of this constant craving, or is Staley's addiction born of an incurable pain like the one that fueled the work and suicide of Kurt Cobain? Trent Reznor once remarked that if he ever sought therapy, his musical career would be finished. It's the great rock dichotomy: if you leave the sadness and addiction behind, you could lose your hold on your musical muse. But if you cling tight to the monkey, pretty soon the monkey will take you down. Despite Staley's insistence to the contrary, despite the fight left in Alice in Chains' music, you van hear the energy beginning to drain away.