Review Summary: Is there a better way to complete an artist's legacy?Episode VI: MTV Unplugged
It is April 10, 1996. Alice in Chains, almost broken by the severe drug addiction of one of their central figure Layne Staley, get back together to perform a concert for the first time in two and a half years. The MTV Unplugged
series is an opportunity for the band to perform an all-acoustic set, providing a completely different, stripped-down experience from the hard-edged outings that most had heard of them before. While some are eagerly expecting a resurface of one of Seattle’s most talented grunge acts, it would prove not to be.
would be one of the band’s final performances with Staley, who would continue to face his drug habits. After a very lengthy and unpleasant struggle, in which he remained much isolated from everyone he knew, he finally passed away in April 2002. Though his body was found on the 20th, Staley’s death was estimated to have been 2 weeks before, on April 5th. He had died from a lethal injection of heroin and cocaine, better known as a speedball.
Layne Thomas Staley (August 22, 1967 – c. April 5, 2002)
Alice’s performance on the Unplugged
show remains known as one of the most memorable editions of the series, and it is not difficult to understand why. The band was finally performing again after all this time, much to the relief of many, but that is no reason for this performance to be so special. Alice in Chains is facing their end here, and they knew it. The feelings that this must have brought forth for the band, along with the acoustics, solidify a performance that is both soulful and passionate, to the point where you can hear the heavy emotional burden on the musicians flowing right to you through your speakers. Though it is actually visible on the DVD version of the concert, Staley’s struggle is obvious, and he regularly has problems hitting all the notes without sounding forced. This, however, only adds to the emotional depth that this album has to offer, and comes across as an extra, heartfelt edge to the music, rather than an irritation.
The acoustic recreation of Alice’s studio work by Cantrell and Inez is flawless, and creates an intimate atmosphere, a side to the band previously unheard even on Sap
and Jar of Flies
. While Cantrell’s performance is the most standout (his skill with an acoustic guitar is nothing short of remarkable), Inez’ low, moody bass lines are overall more audible than the bass guitar ever was on a Alice in Chains record, and showcase incredible playing strength. Though Kinney has always been the least striking performer of the boys, mostly because his drumming isn’t very straightforward, his calm but thoughtful rhythm patterns are in fact quite underrated, and also very well produced here. The production is one of the album’s greatest assets, and doesn’t allow any of the instruments to drown the others.
The set list is perfect for the occasion, and the only classic Alice material that is NOT featured would have only detracted from the concert. Surely you weren’t expecting an acoustic We Die Young
, Man in the Box
or Them Bones
, were you? There are SOME exceptions to this rule, however. While Sludge Factory
, Angry Chair
may seem slightly out of place, the former two are actually surprisingly fresh versions. The irritating, robotic ending of Sludge Factory
has been omitted, and though the bleak feel doesn’t remain, the acoustic recreation gives way to the true dark nature of the song, which is, in a way, much better conveyed than on its original. Angry Chair
is as moody and sinister as ever, and the bass, a central part of the song, is superior to Dirt’s version.
The only drawbacks then, are two of Alice’s very best, Rooster
, which both ultimately require the dark distortion and powerful vocals that made them so fantastic in the first place, something the band is not in the right situation for to provide. It doesn’t mean they are complete letdowns, but they remain the two least great moments in the set.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the very best moments Unplugged
provides come from the material that was already softer in the first place, predominantly found on Alice’s EP’s. Nutshell
is a perfect opener, and the band couldn’t have picked a better tone-setter, but the melancholic Brother
and upbeat No Excuses
can easily match it. Ballads Got Me Wrong
and Heaven Beside You
are two other excellent additions, but the surprise among the softies, so to say, lies in Down in a Hole
, which was as close to a softer output as Dirt could ever get, and feels even more down-to-earth (no pun intended) than ever.
And yes, they save one of the best for the last. The previously unheard Killer is Me
, heavily influenced by the material on Sap, most particularly Brother
, certainly has the potential to rank among the AiC classics, and closes off one hell of a fantastic show.
While it is a classic performance, and arguably the best Alice in Chains album, Unplugged
would also mark the end to what the band would never manage to achieve again. Alice’s classic era was over after the day this concert was performed, and they damn well knew it. It is the final entry into a legacy that will be long remembered, and of course they have produced another excellent record in Black Gives Way to Blue
, but while listening to that, we just can’t help but think back to those days, the days where Alice was a brilliant, unique and influential force in the musical world.
But those days are over.
Alice in Chains’ MTV Unplugged was brought to you by courtesy of:
- Layne Thomas Staley (R.I.P.) ~ Lead Vocals, Rhythm Guitar
- Jerry Fulton Cantrell ~ Lead Guitar, Vocals
- Michael Jennings ~ Bass Guitar, Guitar
- Sean Howard Kinney ~ Drums
- Scott Olson ~ Bass Guitar, Guitar