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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Alice In Chains: Unplugged


1) Nutshell; 2) Brother; 3) No Excuses; 4) Sludge Factory; 5) Down In A Hole; 6) Angry Chair; 7) Rooster; 8) Got Me Wrong; 9) Heaven Beside You; 10) Would; 11) Frogs; 12) Over Now; 13) Killer Is Me.

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 Alice? Particularly since the band was no foe to acoustic music, having already released two almost completely acoustic EPs. They do, in fact, play two songs from Sap and two from Jar Of Flies — but then it would have been bo­ring and predictable had they simply decided to stick to their original acoustic material, so they try to be more creative by rearranging some heavy numbers as well.

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'? Vietnam my ass. Watch the video, look at this guy taking it. There's death in his voice, death in his eyes — his own death. It's terrifying, and yet there is something diabolically seductive about all this. Maybe no one would like to go like Layne Staley — decomposing from overdosing — but quite a few people would subconsciously want to be like Layne Staley on that stage, hypnotically drilling the lines of 'Rooster' into the ears of a (sometimes visibly shaken) audience.

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.


  1. love the word you used "seduced" cause i werent a real alice fan until i watched "nutshell" on youtube. it definately captivated me, inspired me to watch more. cant believe how layne is so strung out painfully addicted to heroin while doin performances like these. he was undeniably and truly talented. i felt like crying while watching layne pour out his heart. awsome dvd. awsome blog.

  2. Though it might have been in opposition to the idea behind the show (and thus more applicable to the general posturing of grunge), I think this show would have benefited from reworkings of AIC's heavier material. After all, aside from the visual of Staley performing, there's little interest to be had in the actual audio side of things when removing one's visual of the frontman. Really? Four songs from already acoustic-based sets? That just seems easy. "Down in a Hole" is my favorite song by this band, but it fits rather predictably within the mold of the acoustic show. I would have much rather had something that is dependent on the crunch of Cantrell's guitars translated into an acoustic arrangement.