Review Summary: "If I can't be my own, I'd feel better dead."
On the heels of the successful yet painfully arduous tour of their second full-length studio effort, “Dirt,” Seattle’s Alice In Chains returned to their hometown to find nothing but an eviction notice, kicked out of their residence due to their inability to pay rent. In a swirl of depression and loneliness, the grunge band relocated to the London Bridge Studio, with no inclination that they were prepared to record new material. However, in a mere week’s time, Alice In Chains produced the acoustic-dominated, ballad-oriented “Jar Of Flies.” With new bassist Mike Inez (original bassist Mike Starr left in the middle of the “Dirt” tour), and a handful of guest musicians, Alice In Chains created an EP filled with dark reflections on lost connections and isolation generated by their own doing. “Jar Of Flies” captures Alice In Chains at the bleakest and most fragile-minded stage of their career and delivers with stunning results.
“Rotten Apple” acts extremely well to set the eerie, dark tone for the entire EP while also serving as an excellent first impression of Inez’s bass work. While it is the longest song of the whole album, clocking in at nearly seven minutes, Alice In Chains works to keep the track interesting, continuously adding layers to the original rhythm provided by Inez’s sludgy bass work. Inez’s operates as the puppet master of the track, his bass providing the framework for the rest of the band to follow along with.
The greatest song on the entire EP proves to be not only one of Alice In Chains’ greatest and unforgettable musical achievements, but also one of their most ominous. “Nutshell” is a mesmerizing piece of music, from its simple, gorgeous opening chord progression to its sorrowful lyrics of loneliness and hopelessness. Layne Staley sounds like a broken man, pondering why life is worth living anymore. The performance is startling, emotional and a testament to Staley as a vocalist.
“Whale & Wasp” is the surprise instrumental track on “Jar Of Flies,” but proves to be one of the most haunting songs on the entire EP, just narrowly edged out by “Nutshell.” It’s almost as if Alice In Chains finds itself drowning in its own depression and is crying out to be rescued. While Jerry Cantrell delicately picks his guitar in the background, a piercing, echoing electric guitar riff layers itself on top of his work yet never completely drowns out his beautiful playing. Combined with subtle viola playing of Alice Acevez, Alice In Chains manages to drive home the feelings of despair without needing to utilize words to express themselves. While many will gripe that the track is slightly repetitive, “Whale &Whasp” is truly stunning and unlike anything Alice In Chains would release later on in their career.
“Don’t Follow” greatly exhibits Cantrell’s ability as a vocalist. Behind his own soft, acoustic-driven rhythm and the dreary harmonica playing of David Atkinson, Cantrell sounds like a man in the middle of a life-altering reflection. In a time of dreary, seemingly self-inflicted isolation, he composes himself and sings with a striking, unnerving calmness. Staley jumps into the song during the bridge, providing a stark contrast to Cantrell’s vocals and changing the musical direction of the track. Whereas Cantrell sounds tranquil and collected, Staley sounds as though he is having a mental breakdown, lashing out at himself for losing those he cares about most.
In the midst of spiraling depression and major setbacks, Alice In Chains managed to harness their feelings of misery to craft arguably the greatest studio work of their catalog. While it may seem tremendously disheartening at times, “Jar Of Flies” is a powerful reflection of a grunge band during their darkest times. Depression never sounded so beautiful.