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There’s a pseudo-snobby music writer line that yours truly has employed several times over the years: if Soundgarden and Alice In Chains are grunge, then so are Nevermore, Queensryche and Hendrix. Even as a junior high kid with the most nascent of musical tastes, it was obvious these two bands were coming from a much different place than their Seattle peers. Within that coupling, Alice In Chains was the Sabbath to Soundgarden’s Zeppelin; darker, heavier and imbued with a true emotional heft. By the time Layne Staley hooked up with Jerry Cantrell, Mike Starr and Sean Kinney in ’88 he had left behind the cheeseball lyrical themes (“Lip Lock Rock”, “Fat Girls”) and Alice ‘N Chainz hair (Google Images is your friend) for the real deal.

While Cantrell would have a more prominent vocal presence on later albums, his background harmonizing on Facelift was a rare thing at the time and also complemented Staley’s timbre perfectly. The chorus in “Man In The Box” and verses in “It Ain’t Like That” wouldn’t be nearly as memorable without that critical element. It also illustrated that this new breed of heavy metal could write catchy songs without sacrificing the “heavy” part. “Man In The Box” also played a vital role in the band’s success; it wasn’t until after the song’s video got heavy rotation on MTV that Facelift album sales took off.

Then there is Staley himself, whose distinctive voice (not unlike that of Stevie Nicks and Axl Rose) was a turnoff for some but had the uncanny ability to weave itself into the body of each song. The Skid Row swagger of “Put You Down” morphs effortlessly into a moaning croon on “Confusion”, and countless copycats have since followed.

Kinney and Starr lend more credence to the Sabbath comparison with a mammoth rhythm performance, anchoring each song so as to allow Staley and Cantrell to spread their wings. That’s not to say they didn’t have their own moments to shine; check out Starr’s bass runs during the solo in “Man In The Box”, heavy as fuck riffing on “Real Thing” or the subtle fills Kinney pulls off throughout “Sea Of Sorrow” (made all the more impressive after finding out he was nursing a broken hand during the recording sessions!).

It’s very odd to think of Facelift as classic rock, but at 25 years that’s exactly what it is. The band would build on its foundation and become genuine rock stars on their next album, the iconic (and slightly superior) Dirt. Younger fans that have grown up around several decades of genre mashups and a new cycle of metal popularity might have trouble understanding why they were regularly booed off the stage opening the Clash Of The Titans tour; didn’t Slayer just wrap up a festival with, um, The Devil Wears Prada? Not only have the attitudes changed, but so has the dichotomy. In 2015, Alice In Chains is the only band from that Titans tour still making inspired, excellent music.

—Chris Rowella

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