1000 Albums Project

ALBUM 174

Facelift, by Alice in Chains
Suggested by Dave Parkinson

Layne Staley, lead singer of Alice in Chains, died in 2002 from an overdose of heroin and cocaine. He was 34.

The band had been on hiatus since 1996, largely driven by Staley’s drug issues. They disbanded not long after his death, only to reform in 2005 on the back of a benefit concert performance. Armed with a new vocalist, they have released three albums in the 21st century, to complement the three released with Layne in the Nineties.

How a band reacts after losing their vocalist through tragedy is an interesting topic. Losing a bassist or guitarist is bad enough, but when the loss is felt on the front line of audience interaction, it’s hard to know if the band can carry on. Queen, post-Freddie, have opted to go the “Queen plus Adam Lambert” route, knowing that while there’s no replacing the mercurial Mercury, Brian May cannot feast on badgers alone.

Soundgarden called it a day when Chris Cornell died. Blind Melon had a ten-year gap before they replaced Shannon Hoon. Thin Lizzy are still rocking, but Motorhead are no more. As in all things, it’s down to the individual circumstances of the people involved.

Happily for us, today I’m reviewing Facelift, Alice in Chans’ debut album, which features Layne Staley in all his harmonizing glory. Full disclosure: today is not my first rodeo with these songs.

I remember the first time I heard Facelift. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but not quite as much as my friends did. It was presented to me as straight metal, back in the days before Metallica released the Black Album, but a cursory listen should have scotched that particular theory pretty damn quick. With a grinding fuzziness, Alice in Chance had more than a fleeting connection to the burgeoning Grunge scene at the time, no matter how much my friends and I dismissed the idea.

It didn’t matter. With great songs such as Sea of Sorrow, Bleed the Freak, and We Die Young, Alice in Chains were bringing the metallic edge to a fresh new genre without batting an eye. Guitar-wise, we have an ever present and expansive sound, both brooding and droning at the same frequencies. Of course, the true strength of Facelift lies in Staley’s vocal performance, especially in the harmonies created with the remainder of the band. Those perfect choruses are layered, hypnotic and very powerful. In the verses , Staley has a biting snarl of a delivery, and this trademark style is good enough for him to forge a fine reputation for both technique and authenticity.

My favourite song on this album, rather predictably, it the volcanic Man in a Box. Form humble talkbox beginnings, with bitter lyrics and restrained backing, this song erupts into a screeching chorus that stays with you long after the song, and the album, are finished.

The complaint I have about this album is the pacing. I don’t know if it’s dated badly , or if I’ve sped up in my old age, but each song drags when compared against more modern offerings. It’s odd, but I swear this sounded faster when I was eighteen.

Despite these misgivings, I score Facelift at a creditable 7/10. While a few of the later tracks have the taint of Album Track Indulgence peppered over them, there’s no denying that Man in the Box if five minutes of grungy metallic crossover beauty.

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