ALICE IN CHAINS: UNPLUGGED (1996)
The popular music scene presents you with plenty of opportunities to hear and watch dead people perform, but Alice In Chains' Unplugged probably takes the cake. It is a recording worth owning, but it does not produce nearly as strong an impression without the image of Layne Staley's blood-shot eyes blankly staring into space. Emotions still run wild deep within him, and his voice is as powerful at expressing them as before, but he has no ability whatsoever to display them visually, singing from within a sealed sarcophagus. That, my friends, is truly scary.
It is not too clear why the band agreed to do the MTV ritual in the first place. They held no tour to support Tripod — Layne was clearly indisposed — and the idea was probably that if Nirvana could have gotten away with something like that, why not
It all works. The songs may lose their crunch, but not a single one loses its point. One could guess the sludge metal of Tripod would be impossible to reforge in a distortion-free manner — one would be wrong, because 'Sludge Factory' and 'Frogs' trudge along with the same sense of doom (the only problem with the former is that Layne forgets some of the lyrics and they have to end it about three minutes too early), just not as heavy on the ear. Which, by the way, makes Unplugged the perfect choice to introduce Alice In Chains to people with zero tolerance for heavy metal — not sure if it is possible to make them perform the transition to Dirt from then on, but it is at least one more opportunity to spread the word about the genius of this band.
The centerpoint, both chronologically and metaphorically, is, I think, the inspired performance of 'Rooster'. For the most part, they stay away from their most aggressive rockers — no 'Them Bones' or 'We Die Young' or 'Godsmack'; 'Rooster' is the closest they get to their standard heights of fury, and Layne's opening 'Ain't found a way to kill me yet...' tingles my spine every time I hear it. There goes something big and pretentious, something formally non-related to the singer's problems, but if we did not have the correct information that the song was written about Jerry Cantrell's dad's Vietnam experience, would there be a single chance of us not associating it with Layne's own plight? In fact, even now that we have the information, does it not sound like it is all about Staley? 'Seems every path leads me to nowhere'?
Correcting the balance a little, let us not forget that Staley is not the only stage presence. Cantrell plays excellent guitar throughout, with the additional help of second guitarist Scott Olson, and Mike Inez lays down strong basslines as well as injects a little humor in the proceedings: the video shows the inscription 'Friends Don't Let Friends Get Friends Haircuts' on his bass, most probably an amicable stab at Metallica, and he also plays the intro to 'Enter Sandman' at one point — for no particular reason.
This may not be essential Alice In Chains listening, but its importance is not merely historical (as in, «the last Alice In Chains album with Staley still alive», etc.); it builds up their acoustic legacy and it gives you the band on a more intimate level, which, in the light of Staley's condition, turns into a strange twist on a spiritual séance. A deranged thumbs up.