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How Alice in Chains Bridged Rock Eras With ‘Facelift’

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In late summer 1990, music history sat on the edge of a knife, teetering between the lingering Reagan era’s pop music rule and the alternative rock insurrection. Heavy metal, in particular, seemed mired in hair-band mediocrity or growing thrash stagnation – with death and black metal still just gathering steam in the underground. At first, Alice in Chains might not have seemed like likely candidates to rise above it all.

They had, of course, indulged in their own glam-metal chicanery during an early incarnation as Alice n’ Chains. Back then, however, singer Layne Staley had yet to make the acquaintance of guitarist Jerry Cantrell, bassist Mike Starr and drummer Sean Kinney. Once he did, the rebooted Alice in Chains quickly gravitated towards a heavier, darker, if still thoroughly metallic sound – one that reflected the rising wave of post-punk, post hardcore bands flooding America’s upper Northwest.

Eventually Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Nirvana and Pearl Jam would help to define the future movement known as grunge, but it was Alice in Chains who struck gold and then platinum before the rest.

Facelift, since certified at more than two million in sales, arrived on Aug. 21, 1990, with a pair of riff-heavy singles in “We Die Young” and “Man in a Box.” Elsewhere, however, were less conventional, far more textured songs like “Bleed the Freak,” “I Can’t Remember” and “Love, Hate, Love,” where somber melodies and elliptical lyrics cast a spotlight on Staley and Cantrell’s deliberate tempos and haunting harmonies — even as the latter’s pyrotechnic solos continually connected the dots back to Alice in Chains’ heavy metal roots. Meanwhile, other Facelift standouts like “Sea of Sorrow,” the grinding “It Ain’t Like That” and positively menacing “Real Thing” split the difference between these two extremes, while curiosities like “Sunshine” and “I Know Somethin’ (‘Bout You)” flirted with the short-lived funk metal trend.

That ability to adapt allowed Alice in Chains to navigate the rough waters of the current music scene with relative ease. They joined the metal-centric Clash of the Titans tour (co-headlined by Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax) on the one hand, and stood along the similarly precocious Soundgarden as the first grunge bands to capitalize on the major label leap.

Within a year of Facelift‘s arrival, Nirvana’s Nevermind officially shifted the mainstream’s attention to Seattle’s emerging new sound. But as Facelift reminds, Alice in Chains were one of the new guard’s first agents of change.

The Top 100 Rock Albums of the ’90s

Next: Returning to Alice in Chains' Classic 'Jar of Flies'

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