ARE THEY METAL?: Alice in Chains

ARE THEY METAL?: Alice in Chains

Heavy metal music has been a hotbed of new bands pushing the genre in new directions and sounds. Creating subgenres and influencing countless other bands in their wake. But sometimes, bands can tread the line of the border of if they want to fully jump into the dark waters of heavy metal or stay close to their rock roots or other genres they may have started with. I want to tackle some of those bands and look at their music and see if they truly are metal, in something I'm calling Are They Metal?

In this edition, I am tackling a band that is usually associated with the rise of 90's grunge music among the likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, bands that were leaders of the Seattle sound. That band is Alice in Chains. Although they rose during the time of the grunge bands mentioned earlier, they seemed to stray away from the grunge sound and tackled darker topics and themes, with a heavier sound that set them apart from the grunge & alternative sound that was taking over modern radio and killing off the upbeat vibe of hair metal.

On the band's 1990 debut album Facelift, the band would debut along many bands rising from the pacific northwest Seattle scene. Guitarist Jerry Cantrell has said he wanted the album to have a "moody aura that was a direct result of the brooding atmosphere and feel of Seattle". As a pacific northwestern resident myself, the album does have that brooding and dreary sound to it throughout the record. A melancholic feeling of dread and unrelenting moments of sadness & depression in the music, which some blame on the stereotypical overcast and rainy weather of the region.

With the band's most successful single from the album "Man in The Box" being nominated for the Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance in 1992. Eventually going three times platinum officially in 2022. Creating that memorable, earworm opening riff opener. Vocalist Layne Staley's haunting vocals in the opening makes it one of the most iconic and recognizable songs of the 90's. With chugging guitars and a very bluesy, almost Zakk Wylde sounding guitar solo, the song did include elements of the alternative grunge sound into a more bluesy, classic heavy metal sound you might hear Sabbath do at that time. The dark, morbid lyrical themes of death, drugs and censorship, made the band stick out from the angst and emotional lyrics of its contemporaries of the 90's.

The band would follow their debut with what many fans would call their magnum opus with Dirt two years later. With successful singles "Would?", "Them Bones", "Down in A Hole" and "Rooster", this would launch the band into superstardom. Becoming one of the big four of the Seattle grunge sound, along with Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. The album would also feature Slayer bassist & vocalist Tom Araya on guest vocals for the track "Iron Gland".

From the driving, chuggy opening riff of "Them Bones", the band delivered a hopeless, radio-friendly doom record that pushed the darker subject matter even further into the depths of depression. Staley stated the overall "concept" of the album was there is two basic themes. One, is dealing with the kind of personal angst and turmoil which turns into drugs to ease the pain and being confident that drugs were the answer in a way. Then, the songs later start to slip down closer and closer to hell, realizing that drugs weren't the answer. A concept that Staley himself was going through at the time of recording and throughout his life. A very doom-and-gloom record, with elements of doom metal in its guitar playing, tempo, and lyrical tone, mixed with catchy hooks and memorable performances from Staley. The album was a true cornerstone at the peak of grunge's hype, even through the record had heavier riffs and more leanings towards traditional heavy metal with grunge influences.

The band would follow that album up with their self-titled album in 1995. This would be the last studio album to feature Staley on vocals. The band would be living its own musical sound. Not only continued lyrical themes of drugs, depression, religion and broken relationships, but the band would also be dealing with inner turmoil and frustration amongst themselves. Fueled by Staley's substance problems beginning to affect him and the rest of the band.

With the heavy, palm muted chugging opener of "Grind" to the acoustic-esque ballad-like sound of "Heaven Beside You" to the gurgling bass and guitar riff combo of "Again", the album was another beautifully tragic sounding mix of doom metal, alternative/grunge, and traditional heavy metal. The album would debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and selling almost 190,000 copies in its first week.

One of Staley's final appearances performing with Alice in Chains was on the 1996 MTV Unplugged. In the performance, Staley seemed lost, downtrodden and deep in a depression. Though looking that way, many fans of the band cited this performance  as one of his best. Matching the somber tone and unhappy feeling of his vocals with his demeanor. The concert also had a inside joke with bassist Mike Inez's bass guitar having the message "Friends Don't Let Friends Get Friends Haircuts...". A light jab to Metallica, who at the time of the performance recently cut their hair short during the time of the Load/Reload release and tour cycle. The band would not officially disband, but would go on a hiatus in 1996. Staley would live a recluse life. Rarely leaving his condo in Seattle following the death of his fiancé Demri Parrott to a drug overdose in 1996. Cantrell would release his first solo album Boggy Depot in 1998 and continue to release solo material during the hiatus as well as breaks in Alice in Chains' current touring and album cycles. Inez would join Heart, recording and touring with the band. Drummer Sean Kinney would become co-owner of The Crocodile club in Seattle and would still make music. In 2018, he would fill in as guest drummer on NBC's Late Night With Seth Myers.

So, the ultimate question is, is Alice in Chains metal? To me, yes they are. Yes, they did have elements of the Seattle grunge sound of the time, but they weren't grunge in my opinion. I always felt they were unfairly lumped in with that sound, similar to Soundgarden. Alice in Chains was darker, edgier, had classic doom/heavy metal elements to their sound that reminds me of Black Sabbath in its bluesy guitar playing. While also incorporating modern chugs and iconic vocals that instantly make them recognizable. Like I mentioned earlier in this piece, they were a metal band with grunge/alternative influences, not the other way around. A lot of people don't realize how liked they were by fellow metal musicians. Late Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell expressed his admiration for Cantrell's guitar work with Guitar International, stating that:

"the layering and the honest feel that Jerry Cantrell gets on [Alice in Chains' Dirt] record is worth a lot more than someone who plays five million notes."

Many countless modern day metal acts like Avenged Sevenfold, In Flames, Opeth, Disturbed, Godsmack, Dream Theater and even Metallica have praised the band and the impact they had musically with their sound. Even pop icon Elton John said he was a big admirer of Cantrell. In my opinion, Alice in Chains is a metal band and they should be treated as one, not as a grunge band like its contemporaries. The band is worth a deep dive if you want to listen for yourself and decide for yourself if you think they are metal.

Following the passing of former vocalist Layne Staley in 2002 due to a drug overdose, the band would return with new vocalist and rhythm guitarist William DuVall and enter the studio in 2008. The band released their fourth studio album Black Gives Way To Blue one year later, receiving a positive response from longtime fans. The band's last record Rainier Fog was released in 2018, with DuVall confirming in a 2023 interview with Blabbermouth stating there isn't new music in the works right now. With other members currently working on other projects. And per the band's website and my research, there is no news of the band working on their seventh album.

Do you think Alice in Chains is metal? Tell us why you agree or disagree in the comments sections. Also, we'd love to hear your suggestions on which bands you think we should cover in this format, and if it's popular enough, we'll make it a series like our Versus and Why The Hate? series. I'm Justin, Your Friendly Neighborhood Metalhead, for This Day in Metal.

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