Review Summary: A stripped down live accoustic performance from Alice In Chains which grasps at the ehart of its listener. The whole album's focus went from twisted and heavy distortion to focusing on the raw emotional power of Staley's lyrics. The mood of the album is bAlice In Chains
: MTV UNPLUGGED
Layne Staley: Vocals/Guitar
Jerry Cantrell: Guitar/Vocals
Mike Inez: Bass
Sean Kinney: Drums
Scott Olsen: Guitar
Layne Staley was certainly one of the most enigmatic front man the grunge movement ever produced. His depressing and dark vocals mixed with Cantrell’s brooding, yet melodic, tone shot Alice In Chains at the front of the grunge pack, being one of the spearheading bands of the movement. As every AIC fan knows, Staley was addicted to heroin. It was this addicted which fueled much of the pain in his lyrics but it also caused Staley’s inability to tour in later years, along with the band growing disapproval of his addiction, and their hiatus. Staley would succumb to his depression and drug addiction April 20, 2002. His death wrapped up years of turmoil surrounding his life.
One cannot help but compare this album to Nirvana’s similar MTV Unplugged version. Both follow the same concept. Strip down the distorted instrumentations and let the singer let loose raw lyrical power. Nirvana’s version was brilliant but ultimately the AIC version proves the stronger of the two. AIC’s instrumentation is much better and lacks the occasional mistakes on guitar that Kurt Cobain made on stage. Also Staley vocals are just far darker than Kurt’s. This album like Nirvana’s is also enhanced by the knowledge of Staley’s death.
The album opener Nutshell
is one of the strongest tracks on this whole set. It starts with simply the crowd cheering and then Cantrell’s guitar can be heard like a soft whisper. This riff is truly beautifully pitiful sounding (in a good way). A very deep and similarly brooding bass line kicks in along with Staley’s brilliant vocals. The whole song is so fragile, it sounds as if it is about to collapse the whole time. The lyrics are so crushing it almost brings tears to the eyes.
The next song Brother
is another great song (this album actually lacks weak songs). It carries along with a very slow pace. The guitar has Middle Eastern sounding hammer-ons and the drums also sound very foreign with Kinney lightly tapping the symbols like a tambourine. Staley’s vocals consist mostly of some haunting humming and then ethereal sounding verses. This song also has a good but short solo. The song ends with a woman singing along with Staley’s hum and the same eccentric guitar as in the beginning.
Members of the audience then begin to erupt as the opening guitar of No Excuses
starts. It’s one of their most popular songs and probably appealed to them a lot. This song has a great bass riff under the upbeat guitar, which is very uncharacteristic of AIC. Staley’s vocals are not as strong on this track and his voice never changes. There is also a decent acoustic solo but it’s way too short.
probably makes the best conversion from a highly distorted to an acoustic song on whole album. It’s a slow dirge of doom bringing power chords accompanied by Staley’s droning “Ow’s” and “Ya’s”. His voice also sounds deeper on this version. Occasional during his verses Staley raises his voice to a very high-pitched tone. Fast guitar picking then replaces the droning sound when Staley sings the chorus line “Once again discolored skin gives you away…” The manic solo sounds even better in acoustic than it did in electric and this song is shorter because they didn’t play the part were Staley’s screams in the monotonous voice “You weapon is guilt.”
The audience cheers again as another famous song starts. Down In A Hole
is another trudge through the paths of Staley’s depression. The guitar actually lost much of it’s powerful sound in this acoustic version, but it does let Staley shine, which is the purpose of this album. Staley elongates a lot of his lyrics here and shows some impressive pipes. The lyrics are very typical of grunge but are still enjoyable because they aren’t so abstract. People can relate much more to the concept of being in a generic dark pit of pain rather than the less concrete form of depression Staley sings about in other songs like Sludge Factory.
didn’t make a very good transition to acoustic unlike some of the other tracks. It’s still not a bad song but it lost most of its intensity provided by the distortion. The guitar is simple but effective, the drumming is probably the best of the album, and Staley’s chanted vocals are effective, but the song just doesn’t have the same raw feel to it.
As any AIC fan knows, Rooster
is about Cantrell’s dad in Nam’. This is probably Staley’s best vocal performance on the album as he shows great vocal range from high to low. In the back there is a gospel choir during the beginning and end.
Got Me Wrong
is the third best track on the album. The highlight of this track is the insane guitar. Mini-solos are dispersed throughout the song and the final solo at the end matches the songs overall positive vibe. Though this album’s strong point is it’s crushingly depressing lyrics and dark tones, this song manages to not throw off the mood of the album at all unlike No Excuses.
Another less depressing song follows Got Me Wrong. Heaven Beside You
has some intriguing jangling guitar with some awesome sounding bends. It has a very calm and somber tone and lyrics such as, “Like the coldest winter chill, heaven beside you.” Instill the sedative affect on the listener. It truly does feel like a cold chill comes over your body when you listen to it at times. The somber mood becomes a bit darker when Staley sings, “I’m just see through faded, super jaded, out of my mind!” The guitar becomes much heavier and the bass is more prevalent. The only flaw of this song is that Cantrell’s ghost-like backing vocals are not as deep as the other version of the song. Overall this song even in it’s “electric” version was mostly acoustic and the shift for Unplugged was a smooth one. Staley at the end of this song makes an interesting statement. He says this is the “best show we’ve done in three years.” It’s ironic because it is one few shows they’ve done in three years and it was there second to last show period as a band.
A very heavy bass line kicks in after this. It’s the every popular bass riff of Would"
. During the whole song the rest of the instruments take back seat and focus themselves around that pumping bass, which sound even heavier than the Dirt version. The song is very short and storms on faster than most of the other tracks of the album, ending in the crash of all the instruments as Staley barks, “If I would…could you!” This song is the one that is most blatantly about Staley’s heroin addiction and it’s hard to listen to it and not have his death in the back of your mind.
is easily the strangest sounding song on the album. It starts with simple guitar picking as Staley sings in a very soft high-pitched sound and howls like a phantom. Most of his lyrics are indiscernible but sound so eerie. The music picks up more when he sings the chorus and progresses from picking to actual chords. The singing stops and in stumbles along for a couple minutes until Staley begins to mumble disturbingly until the song fades.
After the completely freaky Frogs follows a dramatic shift in mood. Over Now
has a lighter sounding guitar riff. Also unlike the electric version it has been sped up and the opening horn intro have been removed. The bass line is a bit too loud too. Luckily however the mood shift a couple minutes before the end when Cantrell just starts to pick a melancholy riff on the guitar and throws in some bends in-between. This part of the song is very sad sounding. But unlike the electric version, this portion of the song is much shorter and it was its length originally, which made it so great. The sound of that gloomy part could carry you off to sleep, but alas, that effect is lost.
The last song Killer Is Me
is another one of the top tracks on this album. The song starts out with some odd sounding guitar picking as Staley and Cantrell trade voice parts and every once in awhile sing in harmony. Then the song shifts into a little louder when the noise picks up a little as Staley sing, “Ooooh yaaah…let’s start over.” This pattern is repeated a couple more times and then the song ends on a soft note.
This song essentially accomplished what the end of Over Now was supposed to. It really calms you down and drags you back from the hellhole of Staley’s dark lyrics and drags you all the way to a soporific state. At this point you realize that you just consumed same very dense emotional baggage. A tortured soul has just bled all his angst and pain onto your head and you absorbed it like a sponge. You traveled through his minds winding dark paths and down through the pitch-black caverns of his soul and luckily, for your own safety, back out again.