CHANCE BARKLEY | Go Venue Magazine
It is hard to overstate the impact of Alice in Chains’ first album, Facelift, which debuted 30 years ago on August 21, 1990. At the time, mainstream rock was in a major transitional phase. The popularity of metal bands like Mötley Crüe and Twisted Sister, who had dominated the airwaves of the 80s, was fading from the public’s favor and fast. Generation Xers, who loved the genre a couple years before, were exhausted with the over saturation of party songs, power chords, and huge hair. Enter Alice in Chains. Over the course of a couple years, they would help create a new sub-genre of rock that would reinvigorate those disaffected audiences and influence music to this day.
The original lineup of the band included guitarist/backup vocalist Jerry Cantrell, lead vocalist Layne Staley, bassist Mike Starr and drummer Sean Kinney. Aware the musical landscape was rapidly changing, they created their signature sound by fusing the 70s-80s metal with a mix of trudging rhythms, prominent vocal harmonies, and melancholic melodies. The result included elements of rock, metal, blues and even country.
Although they didn’t particularly care to be branded as such, Alice in Chains were the shock troops for what came became known as Grunge. Facelift was one of the first albums featuring “the Seattle Sound” from a major label. By the time Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s Ten, and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger debuted, Facelift was already a year old and the first of the genre ever to be certified gold. Recorded in 1989 with producer Dave Jerden, (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, The Rolling Stones) Facelift’s production is clean and rich, which would be in stark contrast to some of the aforementioned albums. Cantrell’s guitar, Starr’s bass and Staley’s vocals are crisp and easy to hear. Even the drums sound great, which is amazing considering that Kinney was playing with a broken hand throughout the sessions.
Cantrell’s guitars often flank the vocals in the mix. Within all the tracks, there is a perfect symbiosis of Staley and Cantrell’s harmonies. This created an eerie mood and added a uniqueness to the vocals of the band. The lyrics often revolve around the darker aspects of life: toxic relationships, addiction, identity crisis, etc. These themes are established immediately from the roaring opening, “We Die Young,” which is about juvenile drug dealers.
The compositions are varied to present a diversity of sounds, tones and tempos that give the record a very balanced feel. This also served to unite fans of various rock sub-genres. Traditional rock/metal audiences appreciated the structure and heavy riffs in “We Die Young,” “Man in a Box,” and “Bleed the Freak.” However, those looking for new elements found Cantrell playing funk in “I Know Somethin (Bout You)” and Starr playing piano in “Sea of Sorrow.”
“Man in a Box” reached the number 18 spot on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Chart by 1991 and MTV airplay propelled the band into stardom. The song rhythmically grooves along as Staley croons lyrics about government censorship and a calf’s life in a veal crate. In 1992, the band was also nominated for a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance. It is still the band’s biggest hit to date and feels macabrely prophetic now, considering that Staley overdosed and died in 2002.
The later tracks are just as strong as those in the beginning. They explore the same painful themes initially presented, but never feel like filler. “I Can’t Remember,” “Love Hate Love,” “Put You Down,” and “Confusion” center around addiction and toxic relationships, but with their own unique style. “Love Hate Love” is a personal favorite that spans almost 6 and a half minutes. However, it is entrancing until completion and features one of Cantrell’s favorite guitar solos. “It Ain’t Like That” evokes imagery of rotten teeth, buzzards, and ripping flesh to describe pain, dissatisfaction and dread.“Sunshine” is a powerful and grooving tribute to Cantrell’s late mother. The album concludes with “Real Thing,” which is a very strong closer. The riffs are classic, groove is infectious and lyrics continue the theme of addiction. There is even a bit of humor for those faithful enough to make it to the end of the track.
The album cover is itself striking, as it is a colorized version of Mike Starr’s face. His mouth is agape with distorted eyes. The lettering for the band’s logo appears scratched into the picture and presented in plain white. It is as unique an image as the music it represents.
Facelift was important because it gave disaffected youth a new sound to define their generation without alienating fans of metal and hard rock. It helped unify these two groups, built the foundation of Grunge and set the genre on a course to rule the rock charts through the mid 90s. The sounds explored therein influence rock musicians to this day. It is a sincere work of art, with each track flowing into the next for 54 minutes. All 12 songs feel as if they are part of one vision that was meant to be heard from start to finish. The album is just as relevant now as it was 30 years ago. Do yourself a favor and check it out.