Review Summary: Buy this album if you have not already
Grunge was pretty much the most subtle meetup genre of the late 80s. Part revivalist and part idealist, it broke new ground by treading old roads. Borrowing all of the lead heavy chops of early metal like Sabbath and Purple, while pulling the experimental side of noise rock/punk bands like Flipper and Fugazi. And while bands like Mudhoney and Hammerbox were more willing to fly the punk flag above all else, metal had it's star players in this rugby game with Alice In Chains and Soundgarden. Borrowing the gloom and doom from bands like Saint Vitus and Trouble, whilst keeping the dread and meandering experimentation of Killing Joke and The Sisters Of Mercy. But where Soundgarden aimed for the strange and off-kilter, AIC leaned for the dirty and downtrodden.
What "Facelift" proved, was that not only was metal alive, but it was willing to mingle with it's dorm-mates. The opiate soaked wails of Staley mixed with the bag of cinder blocks that was Cantrel's guitar made for an eclectic, yet pinpoint focused project. All of the subtle and meek inflections got blended with the overt and blatant heaviness. As the album drowns you in melancholy and forlorn haze, it also delivers some of the most wicked licks of the entire scene. Where Soundgarden might follow extremely close, AIC just couldn't be caught from their travelling cloud. Staley pretty much slithers by in the production, as he coils into a nicely fit hole in the center. The guitar tone brings about a typhoon of hammer-like sounds. Pounding and crushing every vacant hole in the sound. And during all of this, the rhythm section blares by in an underlined roll. Busting apart each part of the song structure, and grabbing it by the heart.
From the doomy and grumbling power chords of "Bleed the Freak" to the rock-fisted face punch of "We Die Young", this record reminds you in a very obvious manner, that it is heavy metal at it's very core. And as it layers it's influences on like blankets to a dog without fur, it starts to melt and mold over the sound. Where metal is in the front drivers seat, alt.rock and shoegaze are in the back with the map. The dreamy and wispy chorus of "Man In The Box" reminds me a great deal of My Bloody Valentine's "Loveless". Foggy and abrasive, yet warm and almost dripping. Dialing down to a deep and conclusive sound culminating in a strong and noble finish. Borrowing bit by bit from the late 80s outputs of Samhain and early Danzig.
There seems to also be a fair amount of nostalgia-tugging in songs like "Sea Of Sorrow" with some nicely played piano chords over a riff that wouldn't have sounded out of place on the first Kiss album. Every twist you hope this album takes, it does in strides. It's the best form of predictable that an album can be. You listen to the start of a riff and say, "If they give this some good vibrato at the end, it will be stuck in my head the rest of the day" and then they do it. Constantly. It's so hard to make an album accessible and catchy while also keeping the newly-bred ideas and experiments in place. It requires an exquisite skill for songwriting. An understanding for correct placement. And I think this pretty much stems in it's entirety from Jerry Cantrell. He has so much soul in his playing. He's the Muddy Waters of grunge. His tone is electric and gravel laden. He forms his riffs into concise and pertinent grooves.
It really grasps your mind, and keeps you in the know of where it's going. Much like the old roads it treads. it travels in a crushed and dipped tone. Scooping it's sounds from the dirtiest and most grime-slicked parts of the underground. This mixing perfectly with how Layne Staley delivers his mournful and distressed cries of alienation and anxiety. And this would go on to give a disgusting Creed for many sub par vocalists to attempt. But the lines that Layne burned on the wax on this recording are far beyond what any of these (mostly)useless human Puddles of Mud could even dream to have written.
For as well written and crushing as this album is, it's only real flaw is the bastard children it spawned. If my pathetic play on words in the previous paragraph didn't state it well enough, the bands who were influenced by AIC are what ruined the road that AIC paved. And it was such a well paved road, so much effort was put into the most insignificant details. They snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. These lesser bands have molested this influential and gravitational sound. Alice In Chains were an anomaly of their time, and the fact that they continue to release albums just as good as (or better than) this one, is a testament to that. They didn't sit by and allow the musical environment to use them like wet putty. They formed their sound like Michelangelo formed a sculpture, with pure prerequisite ambition. Music wasn't ready for Alice In Chains. And rock especially wasn't ready for them. Their dirty and mud-caked sound was foreign to all else in their little independent dome.
And that is the point of this album's brilliance, you can't find the origin point. With most bands, their obviously die cast ideas bring down the mystery and spontaneity of their otherwise brilliant music. But Alice In Chains weren't plagued with that problem, they were as independent as a heavy metal albatross. This album's artistic expression and experimentation, mixed with it's overtly catchy riffing and tortured vocals, brings it to being one of the best albums of the entire grunge scene. And honestly, one of the best metal outputs of the entire decade.
FINAL RATING 10/10