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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Alice In Chains: Facelift


ALICE IN CHAINS: FACELIFT (1990)

1) We Die Young; 2) Man In The Box; 3) Sea Of Sorrow; 4) Bleed The Freak; 5) I Can't Remember; 6) Love, Hate, Love; 7) It Ain't Like That; 8) Sunshine; 9) Put You Down; 10) Confusion; 11) I Know Somethin' ('Bout You); 12) Real Thing.

On beginner level, one could define grunge as «pop melodies, punk attitude, Black Sabbath tone» and mostly hit it right. But Alice In Chains, despite embracing this aesthetics wholesale, actually had roots in Eighties' metal and funk — roots that went back at least four or five years — and this gave them a mature, professional edge over most competition. Vocalist Layne Staley and guitarist Jerry Cantrell were just as pissed-off and fucked-up as Kurt Cobain, just as talented, but they also knew how to throw around their skills so as to consistently come out with some of the scariest music to ever come out of the pop music scene.

Facelift, the band's stunning debut, is as much death metal as it is grunge — in fact, Cantrell has always stated that the band was primarily metal — but certainly not «fantasy-death» metal, not a corny dramatization of some semi-deranged artist's brain damage, rather a faithful depiction of whatever was going around, from Staley's personal drug experiences to observations on true life atrocities ('We Die Young', for instance, is said to reflect Cantrell's impressions of ten-year old drug pushers on the streets of Seattle).

So what happened, exactly? Nothing much. One fine day, hair metal woke up with a strange de­sire to take an honest peek behind its made-to-order screen of hedonism and irony — to look at the other side of all those carnal and spiritual pleasures it had been celebrating for so long now, it even forgot when it all started. That auspicious day, hair metal became Alice In Chains.

Facelift gives no respite: one heavy rocker after another, sometimes moving on slow and painful, like junkies crawling on the floor during their last moments of consciousness, sometimes relent­lessly, steadily mid-tempo, like the hand of Death reaching over the junkies — not too slow, not too fast, but just right — and inavoidably. Sometimes Cantrell softens the proceedings with ligh­ter, acoustic-based passages, but this never changes the general depressing atmosphere. As for Staley, he only knows two moods: The Growl, which will send little kids straight under their beds, and The Moan, which will send the neighbors dialing the drug squad number. Do we want more? What for? They would not be honest, and honesty is Facelift's banner.

With several years of previous collective experience, a fresh, original vibe, and songwriting, sin­ging, and playing talent a-plenty, it would be surprising if Facelift had plenty of bad songs to go along with it, and it does not. The three major stunners, all of which were hit singles, are tacked at the beginning — 'We Die Young', embodying all the basics of worldly evil in a compact 2:30 pa­ckage; 'Man In The Box', the song that Cantrell acknowledges as the first «true Alice In Chains» song the band wrote, and which also has the most achingly overwhelming invocation of the Lord's name I have ever heard in pop; and 'Sea Of Sorrow', whose point is essentially to proclaim that there is no stronger thing in the world than total suicidal desperation. 'I live tomorrow / You I will not follow / As you wallow / In a sea of sorrow' — strange that the song has never played a part in high school shoot-outs. Probably too smart for that.

If you have the strength to sit out everything, you will later on be treated to Cantrell's acoustic capacities ('I Can't Remember'), a couple tracks that sit closer to their hair metal beginnings ('Sun­shine'), and some funky numbers that are almost danceable ('Put You Down', 'I Know Some­thin'), if you like dancing with ghosts, that is. The «sleeper» of the album is its longest number, the dramatic aria of 'Love, Hate, Love', a death metal ballad with Staley giving it his all (and he is a pretty powerful singer); at first, it may be somewhat tiresome to watch it draw its weighty, poi­sonous bulk over your living room (I should certainly know — I trashed it in my original review. Silly silly), but eventually the fumes will sink in, and, for safety reasons, I would certainly re­commend them over their real-world equivalent (a 24-hour stay in an opium den or something to the same power).

Heavy with a flair, honest with an intelligence, Facelift is one of Seattle's finest hours, and will always remain a thumbs up record as long as there are enough thumbs to go with it. It is nothing less than amazing that they actually managed to top it with their next offering.

4 comments:

  1. I don't like this album,mainly because the production's far too dated, normally irrelevant except it still makes AIC sound like slavish imitators of other acts which came before them.. Doesn't help that it's derivative of many of the popular alternative bands(Soundgarden, late 80s funk metal) which came before it. Dirt is a follow-up that proves far superior. The songs are far more powerful, and the aura of darkness is more noticeable. "Love. Hate. Love" is still kind of a good song though.

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    1. I and some other AIC fans have always felt that the album sort of loses steam after the three classic openers. It's not so much that the rest of the album is "bad" as it seems to just meander at times.

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  2. I think today's AIC should return to this Facelift sound, simply because IMO AIC fails to deliver the same aura of peak albums like Dirt or Tripod. It's hard to believe such successful old musicians are in so much pain nowadays, as the new albums try to resemble the older ones.

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  3. I think it's a tad facetious to compartmentalize all "grunge" under the banner of «pop melodies, punk attitude, Black Sabbath tone». As you say, that's an outsiders rough sketch, but I still don't consider Alice In Chains at all related to pop. The music is too crunchy, the sound too dirty and the lyrics and tone of the melodies too dark. Just because they have a gift for hooks doesn't make it pop. Yes, yes, rock is regularly co-opted into pop, but you're not going to ever convince me that AIC is even on the same TREE as stuff like Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. Regardless, the technical skill of THIS band is what gives them the edge to my ear when compared with the rather vanilla compositions of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, who seemed to just try and coast on attitude only.

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