The history of rock ‘n’ roll is marked by the sad and untimely deaths of numerous popular musicians, many of whom died because of drug and alcohol abuse or, in some cases, violent incidents. But few have been more tragic than the circumstances in which Layne Staley, lead singer of the Seattle-based band, Alice In Chains (AIC), died in 2002 at the age of 34. When Staley’s body, who had battled long-time drug addiction, chiefly to heroin, was found in his apartment, some two weeks after he had died, it was so emaciated and decomposed that dental records had to be used to confirm his identity. To many, Staley’s sad and haunting tenor defined the sound of AIC, a distinctive fusion of grunge and heavy metal. His vocals and lead guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s heavy and sweeping riffs made the band what it was.
After a self-imposed hiatus following their bandmate’s death, AIC regrouped in 2006 and a new singer, William DuVall, was inducted. Staley’s were big shoes to fill, his brooding, often pained, vocal style had been a unique trademark and anyone who replaced him was bound to be compared with that. Yet DuVall fitted into the role, seemingly smoothly. My introduction to AIC was by way of an atypical recording by the band. In fact, it wasn’t even a studio album (they now have six of those) but a live recording. I was a latecomer. It was already 1996 when I found MTV Unplugged, a cassette comprising live, mainly acoustic, recordings of their songs at Mumbai’s erstwhile iconic music store Rhythm House. The songs on that cassette (10 on the original release) would become a constant playlist for me for months in the tiny old car that I used to commute 2 hours each day to work and back.
Then, when the CD came out, I bought that too, and it still gets dusted and played on repeat regularly at home. MTV Unplugged eventually got certified as a platinum album after it sold over a million copies in the US. It wasn’t the normal, high-voltage sound on AIC’s studio albums that has drawn throngs of fans since 1990, when the band debuted with Facelift. Yet, the versions of the band’s songs on MTV Unplugged, particularly Down In A Hole, Nutshell and Heaven Beside You, became my elixir when I crawled through Mumbai’s frustrating traffic every morning and evening. I eventually began liking their studio albums, especially Dirt, the eponymous Alice In Chains, and the EP Jar Of Flies.
For a long while after DuVall replaced Staley, I cried off the band’s newer stuff. But then, last autumn, I listened to their latest, Rainier Fog. It was impressive. I sorely missed Staley’s voice but DuVall seemed to be the next best thing to have happened to their sound, and the songs on Rainier Fog (the title song is a tribute to the rich musical scene of their hometown, Seattle) seemed to suggest the band had got the surge of a second wind. So, in mid-June, when AIC came to Helsinki for a gig, I just had to be there.
Kaisaniemen puisto is a sprawling park in the centre of Helsinki where AIC played their open-air gig on a Sunday night. Besides DuVall and Cantrell, the band’s line-up includes drummer (and co-founder) Sean Kinney, and long-time bassist Mike Inez. When a band you like a lot is in town to play a gig, expectations run high. Sometimes, unrealistically high. AIC’s gig was a disappointment on many counts. They played their new songs, such as Rainier Fog, Never Fade and The One You Know, but they also dug into their old catalogue and rendered the fan favourites: Down In A Hole,Nutshell, Angry Chair,Bleed The Freak,Them Bones,Rooster…they were all on that night’s set list. Yet something was missing.
It wasn’t that the sound was poor; nor that the band wasn’t tight—it was. Cantrell’s riffs were as expansive as I had heard them on albums; and his and DuVall’s vocals were on point in terms of technique and delivery. But it was sans passion. When DuVall, who sounds great on the three albums the band has released since he came aboard, sang, it seemed mechanical, even though his voice competently traversed the highs and lows of its range. And Cantrell seemed curiously restrained—even on the encore when they played the all-time fan favourite, Rooster, a song he had written back in 1992, dedicating it to his father, a Vietnam war veteran.
Sometimes, it is also the audience that contributes to the mood. The crowd that night was a bit peculiar. While there was indeed a fair sprinkling of die-hard fans (my friend couldn’t stop dancing and singing the lyrics to every tune that the band belted out), many in the crowd seemed to be indifferent to what was happening on stage. People milled about chattering or just getting drunk and lurching; others just preened self-consciously, apparently wanting to be seen more than enjoying the music; and there was a general air of nonchalance.
It was funny. That afternoon, before the gig, I had wandered around central Helsinki and sensed a buzz in the bars near the venue. Some had the band’s songs playing on a loop; and I spotted at least a dozen people (that’s a big number in a sparsely populated town) with AIC T-shirts. Sadly, though, that buzz seemed to dissipate during the gig. Partly, it was because the electricity was missing. I had expected excitement that would cause the hair on my arms to stand up when I watched them play. It didn’t happen. But then, I am lucky—I have some consolation. As I write this, Staley is launching into the anthemic Down In A Hole on my music system. The song, written by Cantrell in 1992 about his then girlfriend, is beautiful and sad. But I am happy.
THE LOUNGE LIST
Five tracks by Alice In Chains to bookend your week
1. ‘Down In A Hole’ from ‘MTV Unplugged’
2. ‘Rooster’ from ‘Dirt’
3. ‘Rainier Fog’ from ‘Rainier Fog’
4. ‘Man In The Box’ from ‘Facelift’
5. ‘Heaven Beside You’ from ‘Alice In Chains’
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.