Review Summary: An inconsistent but powerful final album by AIC's original lineup.
Alice in Chains was very diverse among grunge groups because of the fact that they had their roots in heavy metal unlike other groups that came from the hardcore punk (Nirvana) or classic rock scenes (Soundgarden). AIC was also very good at reinventing themselves with each new album, as shown with their transition from the almost evil-sounding metal output Dirt to the beautiful, haunting acoustic EP Jar of Flies. Other grunge bands never transitioned this seamlessly: In Utero was an ambitious project but was ultimately disjointed and at times annoying, and Down on the Upside contained too many filler tracks to hold a candle to Superunknown. Many grunge bands had this inconsistent final album be the nail in their coffin, and unfortunately for AIC, this was that album. In 1995 it may have seemed like Alice was on top of the world, making 2 amazing compositions in Dirt (my favorite grunge album) and Jar of Flies. However, AIC was dealing with some rather large demons. Staley's heroin addiction had forced the band to stop touring in 1993: Jerry Cantrell has just been dumped by his longtime girlfriend (the subject of "Heaven Beside You"), the band had just hired a new bassist in Mike Inez, and drummer Sean Kinney had a serious alcohol problem. The band was tired, frustrated and worst of all, pressured; pressured into recording a new groundbreaking album that would save grunge after Kurt Cobain's death. The band just couldn't take this pressure anymore, so instead what we get is a horridly twisted and definitely flawed album, but still an album worth listening to any time of the day.
Let's just take care of the elephant in the room really quick: this album is pretty damn inconsistent. A lot of the time the songs don't seem to know where they're going and end up as really enjoyable near-misses. While Staley's (RIP) vocals on Dirt and Jar of Flies were practically flawless, his vocals on the s/t often seem, dare I say it, boring? There are certain points in songs where he will literally sing the same note for a straight 4 or 5 bars. I know this might not be a fair criticism due to his addiction issues, but it really takes away from the quality of certain songs. Cantrell's guitar playing is amazing as usual, and he even takes lead vocals on 3 of the album's 12 tracks (which are actually some of the better songs on this record). Mike Inez is an incredibly capable bassist, but the oomph contained in the late Mike Starr's playing is dearly missed during some of the more bland songs. Sean Kinney has certain technical limitations with AIC's music but when he is given a chance to shine he uses it extremely well.
Luckily though, when this album is good it's freaking great. The riff of opening track "Grind" will slap you across the face with its raw power the first time you hear it. Cantrell takes lead vocals on this track with Staley doing some beautiful harmonies and the rhythm section's repetitive yet infectious riffing. For a while it seems like this album is incredibly promising, but then the inconsistency comes to light. "Brush Away" is a rather bland tune saved by some cool guitar effects, but unlike other filler tracks on the album it doesn't overstay its welcome being only 3 minutes long. "Head Creeps" would be an awesome song if it was 4 minutes instead of 6. "Again" is a lot like Brush Away in that the song is only saved by a really nice guitar lick at the end. "So Close" is a nice little song that is only 2 minutes but it doesn't use these 2 minutes to accomplish much, so it ends up as another forgettable track. "Nothin' Song" is incredibly disjointed and changes tempo recklessly: there is literally no transition from the slow, sludgy verses to the faster melodic chorus: and last but not least, "Sludge Factory" is really cool until its final minute where it gets kind of grating. Also Staley's little scat thing (oooooh ah yeah) before the verses doesn't really mesh well with the guitar which slightly annoys me. The filler isn't necessarily bad: it just drags, or doesn't really go anywhere.
However, the good mostly outweighs the bad. "Sludge Factory" and "Head Creeps" at least have potential and have shining moments well worth hearing in their bloated running times. Picking up where "Nutshell" left off, "Heaven Beside You" is a lovely ballad sung by Cantrell with a chorus that will give off a euphoric feeling despite the angsty lyrics. "Shame in You" is another gentler song that is one of Staley's defining moments on the album with some of his best lyrics and an undeniably great vocal performance. "God Am" is perhaps the best track on the album, challenged only by "Grind". Beginning with a sample of what sounds like a guy taking a hit from a bong, Kinney's pummeling drumbeat will destroy your soul before the epic verse kicks in with a really cool effect on the vocals and a desolate sounding guitar & bass riff. The chorus is surprisingly melodic: this song does a lot with its 4 minutes that other songs on the album can't do with their 7. "Frogs" is a sprawling track, clocking in at 8:18. Containing a slow tempo and a truly beautiful guitar part, this song is hurt only by its running time, but at the same time I don't entirely mind this because of how amazing the song is: it just kind of gets repetitive towards the end. The final track "Over Now" begins with a sample of taps on the trumpet and a scratching record player. The scratching adds a really cool effect to the song's atmosphere: almost as if there is no chance of escaping some sort of horrible fate, an aura the whole album gives off, but it's a feeling most palpable during these 30 seconds. Cantrell gives his 3rd and final vocal performance on the album, and this is perhaps the only longer song (it's 7:04) that lives up to its full potential: this could quite possibly be my 2nd favorite on the album.
This is definitely not the 1st album by AIC you should get, but if you are an avid grunge listener this album is a must-have for your collection: the lyrics define grunge with their hopeless and angst-ridden feeling, the guitar is distorted and heavy when it needs to be and gentle and gorgeous when gentle and gorgeous is required, the bass is raw, primal and lonely: and the drums provide a backbone that can sometimes save the song. Definitely not the band's best effort but well worth giving a spin.
Side note: the album cover is pretty damn cool.
Recommended tracks (asterisk signifies best song):
Heaven Beside You
Shame in You