In 1990, Alice in Chains released their first LP entitled Facelift. The second track of the album called Man in the Box was their first hit and is THE song that made them famous. Although AIC are reputed as being members of the whole Seattle grunge scene, their debut is more of a hardrock/ metal album. In fact, when I bought this a little more than two years ago, I had never heard of the band and after listening to this I thought that they were a metal band. Grunge was the last thing I would of thought of. The riffs are heavy, the mood is dark, and the slower songs seem hauntingly despairing. If this album were a color, it would indubitably be black. Now comes the questions, “Sure one can say that about many albums. But is the album good? Is the darkness convincing? Or is this album merely the output of young men trying to be poetic and emotional sounding to seem like a deep and serious band?” I would say, “Yes, this is one hell of an album, and empty darkness clouds my mind when I listen to it.”
As of now, I am somewhat of a fan of Alice in Chains and have or have heard all their albums and EPs. This album is definitely very different from any of their later work. Although, most of their songs have a melancholy feel to them, the songs on this album seriously make you feel like you are submerged in darkness. I would describe the general feel as a mix of anger, deep reflection, and sadness. Indeed, I believe this is their darkest album. Yet, this darkness all comes from the music. The lyrics, although not the most joyful ever, don’t seem to be as sad as the one’s on Dirt or on their self titled one. There is no title track but the song that most represents the album as a whole (by its name and not necessarily by its content) is Sea of Sorrow. Moreover, I think the color of the album color represents it very well. It is black in the background, with fiery red in the corners and in the center, there is a dude getting his face messed up. (Just look at the picture at the beginning of the review). But the overall sound isn’t just dark, plain and simple. The darkness has a wonderful and inviting charm that makes you want to hear more. Therefore, I find this album quite easy to listen to all the way through in one sitting.
Alice in Chains has their share of heavy riffs (The intro to Them Bones, the Intro to Grind, the main riff in Sludge Factory…) but the riffs on this album seem more metal. This might be because Grunge hadn’t really exploded in popularity yet and metal was still relatively “it”. In fact, some songs, like Put you Down or Man in The box, sound straight out of the 1980s. Yet, Jerry Cantrell doesn’t do any shreddy 1980s style solos which gives the songs a fresh new edge (Not that shreddy 1980s solos aren’t cool). His solo’s are melodic, sometimes more or less fast, but they are short. The songs are visibly focused on the ability of the band as a whole and not merely on the guitarist. Indeed, it is uncommon that a metal/ hardrock/ grunge band isn’t either guitar oriented or vocal oriented.
The vocal work on this album, like on many AIC albums, is quite interesting. In some songs, Layne sings in a unique raspy manner that I can’t quite explain (like in I can’t Remember) and in others (like Confusion) he tries to sound more melodic. In addition, Jerry Cantrell sings backing vocals in almost every song. He has a much smoother voice than Layne so when he does the backing vocals the result is a hauntingly melodic echo to Layne’s signature voice. Jerry’s vocals definitely add depth to the vocal work; they make it seem more complete.
The rhythm section is very present at all times. You can hear almost all of Mike Starr’s bass fills, and hear that Sean Kinney’s drum work is top notch. Also, it doesn’t overpower the other instruments. Everything is perfectly balanced. In addition, it is not only present but it is quite good too. Mike plays very nice sounding bass lines that go beyond mere root riding and Sean plays some nice fills in almost every song. The rhythm section highlight would probably be the almost out of place, funky sounding track called I know Something (‘Bout you).
All in all, Facelift is twelve convincingly dark sounding tracks that are heavy and melodic. All the instruments are top notch and everything sounds great. Yet, the one down side is that except for maybe two songs (the funky I know Something (bout you) and the slightly upbeat Sunshine), the mood doesn’t really change. Those who like diversity on albums will not be satisfied here. Its not that every song sounds the same, its just that every song has the same dark atmosphere. I recommend this for anyone who likes metal or anyone who likes rock or grunge because although it is less grungy than later Alice in Chains albums, it still has some elements that will later be considered characteristic of grunge.
Recommended heavier tracks: We Die Young, Man in the Box, It Ain’t like that, Put you Down.
Recommended softer, more mysterious tracks: Sea of Sorrow, I Can’t Remember, Confusion.
Bottom line: 4/5 Excellent album with a very sable atmosphere.