“We always wanted to do different things, we don’t want to make big waves doing it and lose people in the process, so we just put it in the stores, We didn’t really advertise it, and it was like something out for the real fans who were out looking out for it to find that’s what Jar of Flies was kinda to us, something for the fans to have while we were gone until making the next record. A different slant, a different flavour. ” – Jerry Cantrell, MediaAmerica Radio presents Up Close, 1998.
I used to hate Alice in Chains. I really did. The music felt repulsive, the vocals grating; an unpleasing listen. Whenever they came up during long sessions of MTV Latino, I clicked the mute button and read whatever I had nearby, waiting for them to finish. It was a conflicting feeling, what they raised, as I did like ‘Rooster’ quite a bit. Still, I just couldn’t get into them, even if they were featured heavily in one of the films I was obsessing at that time: Cameron Crowe’s Singles.
This eventually changed. I’d love to tell you I had some life-changing moment when Alice in Chains came up at the right time and made a terrible moment better, but no, it wasn’t like that. It was this song:
God knows why the fuck I didn’t mute it but I remember being engrossed with a literature assignment, not paying much attention to the TV. The vocals sounded familiar and I was getting into the beat. I had a few pages in my notebook to write the names of songs I really dug, so I waited for the song to finish. I want to say I dropped my pencil in disbelief, but honestly, I just said “well, I never…”
I thought: “Sam, why do you dislike this band?” And I replied to myself “no excuses, then I know…” If ‘Rooster’ was the exception that I liked, ‘No excuses’, with its catchy pop sensibilities and a cool Matt Mahurin video, opened my ears to them. I guess I needed a crowbar. Or a simple but majestic bassline, the real hero in this magnificent track.
A couple of weeks later and I’m at the listening station at MixUp, the local brand of record shops (some may call it a monopoly…) Jar of Flies was there and sure, gave it a shot. And it shot back, seven times, all headshots. In retrospective, I think I didn’t “get” them until I gave them a proper listen. No prejudices, just the music coming out of headphones and a train of thoughts, howling in my head with Layne and Jerry creating beautiful harmonies. I wasn’t repulsed by Layne‘s vocals, I was enthralled. It reflected a world of fear, pent-up anger, and frustration, all feelings we have when we are teens. Some of those feelings never go away.
If ‘Rooster’ was the first time I actually enjoyed them, ‘Nutshell’ was when it all clicked. “And yet I fight this battle all alone” broke me. Some people find solace in The Beatles. Others saw themselves in Cobain or with Vedder and his cohorts. Layne spoke to the broken ones, to those lost in the mazes of their minds. And his message was “I feel like shit too. You’re not alone. Now I’m gonna sing about something you know is in your mind.”
Jar of Flies was rushed, a spur of the moment. The band needed a rest and blew all the steam they could. A few friends, much more technically inclined than me, swear there are mistakes in the album. I believe them, but I don’t mind these mistakes, they make it more natural. It’s an organic response to stress. Through seven tracks, Alice in Chains now sung what their contemporaries weren’t singing about. Can you honestly tell me the alienation in ‘I stay away’ is matched by anything Pearl Jam created (debatable)? Do you truly believe Kurt Cobain spoke for every single Gen-Xer? The nostalgia police may say so, but I never cared much for what they say.
Maybe I’m wrong. I’m sure I’m not a special snowflake, as I know quite a few people who’ll take Alice in Chains over Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Just a few years ago, I was having a conversation with my best friend, Claudia, and she had this to say:
“To me, 90’s were synonymous to teenage angst. I remember many, many dark hours listening to that music labeled as “grunge”. I remember too, the death of a blonde guy that somehow was named “the voice of the generation”. But for me, the one that gave me voice was Layne. His voice was so powerful, yet his image was so fragile; he looked like a lost and fallen angel, so angry for have been cast out of heaven. Through his sadness and anger, he could soothe my soul and make me feel I was not alone. I miss him so much, but hopefully he’s been finally saved, no longer the man in the box.”
I can’t add anything else to what Claudia said. The songs in Jar of Flies will never be as ominous as anything in Dirt or as impossibly noisey as in their self-titled (also called Tripod). But what lacked in the distortion department was more than made up in the amazing musical imagery conjured by the band. ‘Rotten Apple’, the mammoth opener, drones quietly, like a nocturnal rain washing away the grime in a low-lit alley. If ‘Them Bones’ was a warning of things to come, if ‘We Die Young’ pulled no punches and if ‘Grind’ told you to abandon all hope, then ‘Rotten Apple’ was like a trap door that took you to a dark, wonderful world.
‘I stay away’ took a while. It was “nasty” and “unpleasant”. And totally morbid, which made it palatable. The stop motion video drove the point home that Grunge had a massive sense of humour that not many people really understood (or cared about.) What actually surprised me was the inclusion of strings, juxtaposed with Layne‘s gravelly voice. It was a combination out of nowhere and it made it magical. ‘Whale & Wasp’, the spacey instrumental, continues this magic. A trip that both comforts and frightens, ‘Whale & Wasp’ is perfect as it is, a palate cleanser that sets us up for the last two tracks.
“That was a real fun record to make, it was super spontaneous, we recorded those songs in seven days.”
I’m still flabbergasted by this quote by Cantrell. How creative were they at this moment? Conversely, how much shit did they have to endure while on tour that it fueled an album like this? I know it’s an EP. I keep calling it an album. Thin line and all that. It just feels so complete: no filler, no gaps to fill. Two more tracks. ‘Don’t follow’, a lamentation, a warning. ‘Swing on this’, a sexy lounge song overseeing the River Styx. These tracks, closing Jar of Flies become a reassurance for fans of previous albums. We know you want the old Alice in Chains, guys, we are still here. This is just a brief intermission. Enjoy it. You’ll miss it when it’s gone.
I wanted this review to be succinct and punchy, just like Jar of Flies is. But I don’t quite have their talent. I know this EP made me a believer of their music. I know that to this very day, I believe ‘Nutshell’ represents Generation X perfectly. And I know that many a music fan loathes Alice in Chains for being repulsive. C’mon, that was their appeal, they had to be repulsive because they were holding a mirror towards a world that was mean-spirited and unforgiving. The mirror is now shattered, and the images are even uglier, making Jar of Flies as relevant as it once was.
Words. Sam J. Valdés López.