With Jar Of Flies, Alice In Chains unleashed an accidental masterpiece

With Jar Of Flies, Alice In Chains unleashed an accidental masterpiece

In We’re No. 1The A.V. Club examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover Alice In Chains’ Jar Of Flies EP, which went to No. 1 on February 12, 1994, where it stayed for one week. 

In 1993, the easiest way to be labeled a grunge icon was to vehemently reject the notion that you were, in fact, a grunge icon. But Layne Staley, unlike the majority of the flannel-wearing frontmen who adopted that stance, could legitimately deny it. When the first wave of rampant grunge-based consumerism swelled in the Pacific Northwest and crashed over Middle America in the wake of Nirvana’s Nevermind, Staley was already something of a metal icon. But all that would change in 1994 when Alice In Chains unleashed Jar Of Flies, the first-ever EP to debut atop the Billboard 200 and one of the most unexpected landmark releases of the decade.

Alice In Chains might have been the most misunderstood and reluctant member of the Mount Rushmore of grunge (see also: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden), and that’s partly because the average fan didn’t really become aware of the band until about a year after learning about the other three. Pearl Jam’s debut, Ten, was the first to drop in August 1991, followed by Nevermind in late September, and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger in early October. But by then, Alice In Chains was already an established heavy metal outfit with a slow-burning gold album (1990’s Facelift) and an MTV Video Music Award nomination for the stark and disturbing “Man In The Box” clip. The video featured the world’s first real glimpse at instant icon Staley (appearing downright demonic) and, for a few months in 1991, AIC was the biggest band in Seattle.

“Once it got really big with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden, there wasn’t much mentioned about us,” Staley told Rolling Stone in 1992. “All those bands put out records around the same time, and we hadn’t put one out in two years. I don’t think it hurt us, though. I’m glad we didn’t get lumped together with them, because we’re not those other bands.”

It wasn’t until Cameron Crowe featured Alice In Chains as the quintessential Seattle club act in 1992’s Singles and included “Would?” from the group’s upcoming full-length on the platinum-selling soundtrack that AIC became wrapped up in the Seattle hype machine. When Dirt finally did surface in September 1992, it had a built-in audience not only with the Headbangers Ball crowd, but with viewers of the grungier 120 Minutes as well. Acclaimed by critics for its cocksure swagger and exotic melodies and embraced by fans for Staley’s open-veined lyrics on his love/hate/love relationship with heroin, it was immediately unlike anything else on record store shelves. While guitarist/mastermind Jerry Cantrell (no angel himself) wrote most of the music and half the lyrics (including those for “Down In A Hole” and the mammoth radio staple “Rooster”), and bassist Mike Starr left the band mid-tour largely due to his own drug struggles, it was Staley who understandably received the Kurt Cobain treatment. Seething charisma beneath a mangy tussle of bright blond hair, he sang in a sort of hypnotic tribal incantation that would coil up and burst forth in majestic Cornell-like shrieks. Combined with his nihilistic, often hopeless lyrical confessions and his well-documented substance abuse struggles, he was a perfect vicarious crash test dummy for suburban kids who had only just learned to love self-loathing.

The album struck a particular chord with Toby Wright, an up-and-coming record producer based out of L.A. who, like countless others during the summer of 1993, was disappointed by Last Action Herothe Arnold Schwarzenegger meta-action-comedy crushed largely beneath the weight of its own hype. Wright, however, had a unique reason to hold a grudge against the movie. An engineer on Metallica’s …And Justice For All and Mötley Crüe’s Decade Of Decadence, he had been hired by Columbia to track two new Alice In Chains’ songs for the soundtrack.

It was originally a dream gig for Wright, which became reality when he met the Seattle four-piece in the studio, immediately bro’d down, and recorded both “A Little Bitter” and “What The Hell Have I?” with relative ease. But as Wright bounded into the studio to begin mixing, he was shocked to find another man (Nevermind mixer Andy Wallace) sitting at his console, mixing his tracks. “[Wallace] said Columbia brought him on to finish the tracks,” Wright said. “Apparently it was the A&R guy’s mistake. I was upset because I knew I could’ve killed it with those songs, but there were no hard feelings with the band.”

But it was a decision that apparently didn’t sit all that well with Cantrell either: Later, he offered Wright the opportunity to remix the songs for 1999’s Music Bank anthology. “[The original mixes] always bothered me because they were too ‘tinny’ compared to our other stuff,” wrote Cantrell. “That’s not to disrespect Andy; it’s just that he wasn’t there when they were being created.”

A few months later, as Alice In Chains was winding down its headlining run on Lollapalooza alongside Rage Against The Machine, Tool, and Primus, Wright received a call from Cantrell, who was in Australia doing promotion. Cantrell told him the band would be returning home to Seattle shortly and was looking to book 10 days at London Bridge Studio, the same facility where AIC had recorded Dirt, Facelift, and its eclectic 1992 EP, Sap. Wright asked Cantrell if he could send demo tapes, but the shifty Cantrell said AIC would be there before the tapes could arrive. When Wright and the band met at the Shoreline studio, he was in store for a surprise. “I said, ‘Okay, let’s hear those songs.’ Jerry smiled and said, ‘Funny thing about those songs… we don’t have any.’ I laughed and said, ‘So what do you guys wanna do for the next 10 days?’ Cantrell said, ‘Mind if we just jam?’”

Grunge folklore says the band had been evicted from its apartment while it was away and had no choice but to crash at the studio—but if they had, they were in incredibly good spirits about it. Wright said every member—Staley, Cantrell, drummer Sean Kinney, and new bassist Mike Inez (who, during his previous tenure with Ozzy Osbourne, was credited for writing the distinctive bass riff to “No More Tears”) were each in a great headspace. There was no direction for the session except that it was implied that the songs would have an acoustic vibe, in keeping with the tone of the Sap EP. But Staley told Hit Parader in 1994 there were no expectations at all—not even to let the public hear a single note. As he put it, “We had just gotten off the road where we had traveled something like 50,000 miles, and played ear-blasting music every night. We just wanted to go into the studio for a few days with our acoustic guitars and see what happened. We never really planned on the music we made at the time to be released.”

While Cantrell told Wright he hadn’t written any songs, he did have one guitar part: the jangly chorus to “No Excuses,” which would become the chart-topping lead single and potentially the most upbeat, radio-friendly tune the band had ever created. From that starting point, AIC wrote and recorded all seven songs on the EP at breakneck speed with Cantrell, Inez, and Kinney jamming in the wide open live room as Staley worked solitarily on lyrics and melodies upstairs.

“They’d go out on the floor and jam, and I’d just hit record,” said Wright, noting that most of the EP was recorded on Digital Audio Tape because a conventional 2-inch tape back then would only hold about 16 minutes. “They’d get a little form together, go out and jam it, and send it upstairs to Layne who was anxiously awaiting.  He’d write lyrics and melody and come down with a little demo on, I think, a four-track recorder. We’d all listen and go, ‘Hell yeah!’ Then he’d run back upstairs and keep going. It was a very positive attitude from everybody.”

Noticeable in more than just the band’s morale, the positivity also leant itself to unexpected left turns in the music. The EP kicks off with “Rotten Apple”—a vast and melancholic seven-minute opus that could almost have passed for a Temple Of The Dog song—and continues with a similarly mellow arrangement in the mournful fan-favorite “Nutshell.” But it’s the third song in that foreshadowed how far AIC could stretch. “I Stay Away” is a schizophrenic masterpiece, alternating between meandering acoustic guitar backed by a string section (while common now, it was entirely unexpected then) and playfully sinister droning from Staley, making for a strangely uplifting cocktail. It would eventually be nominated for “Best Hard Rock Performance” at the Grammy Awards. The video, directed by Nick Donkin and featuring puppet versions of the band visiting a demented claymation circus, found its way into constant rotation on MTV.

The last three songs on the EP, though, are truly where the curveballs come. From “Whale & Wasp” (a haunting instrumental with Cantrell’s otherworldly guitar bend) through “Don’t Follow” (a kind of harmonica-tinged hobo ditty featuring Cantrell on co-lead vocals), it all leads to “Swing On This,” a completely out-of-character, bluesy number that closes with the mics picking up Inez looking into the booth and saying, “Toby’s still laughing.”

The fact that anyone was laughing on a grunge record was almost as novel as using a string section. Considering it came from Alice In Chains right after the pitch-darkness of Dirt, the move was all the more surprising. Still, it was nowhere near as shocking as what would happen to that 30-minute stream of conscious collection of seven songs once label execs heard it. Released on January 25, 1994, it debuted at No. 1—the first EP ever to do so and the only one for a decade until Jay Z and Linkin Park collaborated on Collision Course.

Although it was unintentional in every way, Jar Of Flies—now certified triple-platinum—played an underrated role in the evolution of grunge when it was still bursting with possibility. After Nirvana’s In Utero was released in late 1993, the EP was the next true follow-up to come from one of the unofficial spokesbands of grunge. Because it was so sonically different from anything that preceded it and so genre-bending, it widened the audible palettes for those who might have been expecting more of the same from their favorites the second time around. It was a good thing AIC loosened them up first. Just a few weeks later, Soundgarden debuted at No. 1 with Superunknown—its most commercially successful album, but one that contained elements that were experimental (“Head Down”) and weird (“Fresh Tendrils”). On June 7, San Diego’s Stone Temple Pilots, who were by many accounts the fifth most popular grunge band, debuted at No. 1 with Purple—a pop-oriented effort with traces of country (“Interstate Love Song”). 

But more than anything, Jar Of Flies provided a much-needed glimpse into the true personality and talent of Alice In Chains. Considering how Staley left listeners on Dirt, it was nice to hear him still alive and in slightly better spirits. Those days, however, were short-lived. Staley’s habit and unreliability forced the band to drop out of their ensuing summer tour with Metallica along with Woodstock ’94, providing a point of contention among the band members for years. They re-enlisted Wright to record their full-length self-titled follow-up, but the experience would be vastly different. Recording the album took an agonizing four months, in stark contrast to the whirlwind week of inspiration that brought about Jar Of Flies. Although Alice In Chains would also go on to debut at No. 1, it was the band’s last studio album with Staley. Their final recorded performance—their first together in three years—came in April 1996 for MTV’s Unplugged and kicked off with a performance of “Nutshell.”

During the following years, as his distinctive vocal delivery was appropriated by the mediocre modern rock likes of Godsmack, Staind, and Puddle Of Mudd, Staley became increasingly reclusive and rarely ventured outside his Seattle condo. It’s where, on April 20, 2002, he was found dead from a lethal dose of heroin and cocaine, sitting upright on his couch in front of the cool blue glow of his still-flickering TV. He was figured to have died on April 5—eight years to the day Cobain died. But while Cobain burned out, Staley clearly faded away, making him a slightly more accurate symbol of the scene that immortalized him, then slowly and painfully collapsed in on itself. To those who knew him best and those who only knew him through his lyrics, Staley’s demise seemed inevitable, if not destined. But Jar Of Flies will thankfully remain a time capsule not only from the golden age of Alice In Chains, but from one of the most unexpectedly important weeks in the history of the genre—considering that the ethos of grunge was rooted in not willingly trying to achieve anything at all.

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