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The 10 Most Important Alice in Chains Moments

Photo Credit: Pete Cronin

In the early ‘90s, Alice in Chains was one of several Seattle grunge bands that took the world by storm, selling millions alongside their friends and peers in Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Soundgarden. With guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s doomy riffs is dropped D tuning, singer Layne Staley’s expressive scream, and a thunderous rhythm section featuring drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Starr (later replaced by Mike Inez), Alice in Chains created a big, influential sound that forever altered the hard rock landscape.  

Alice in Chains released three very loud albums and two acoustic EPs with Staley, before his struggles with heroin sidelined the band and eventually took his life in 2002. Cantrell, Kinney and Inez later reunited, and have released three more albums since 2009. The music the classic Alice in Chains lineup released in the ‘90s, however continues to resonate and inspire imitators. Here are the sometimes funny and sometimes very sad stories behind grunge’s heaviest and, surprisingly, funkiest band. 

10. “Man in the Box” marks the beginning of a new era

Seattle was a breeding ground for hard rock long before grunge, as the hometown of Jimi Hendrix, Heart and Queensryche. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is justifiably seen as the mainstream tipping point for Seattle grunge, and Soundgarden was the first band in the scene to sign with a major label a couple years earlier. In between those milestones, however, Alice in Chains was the first among their contemporaries to break through to rock radio and move units, with the band’s second single “Man in the Box” peaking at No. 18 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart. In fact, Facelift was certified Gold in September 1991, days before Nirvana released Nevermind

9. Funk brings Staley and Cantrell together

Staley first sang in a glam metal band known as Alice in Chains, or sometimes Alice N’ Chains, in the mid-‘80s. That band, however, broke up in 1987, and Staley briefly fronted a funk band called the Black Holes. By that point, Staley had become friends and roommates with Cantrell.  When the Black Holes needed a guitarist, Cantrell joined on the condition that Staley would join his new band with Kinney and Starr. Soon, the funk band broke up, Staley revived the Alice in Chains name for their new band, and the rest is history. 

8. Layne Staley’s haunting swan song

Staley’s final years were, by all accounts, a tragic descent into addiction and depression. Staley’s girlfriend Demri Lara Parrott died by overdose in 1996, and the singer ceased performing with Alice in Chains and made few public appearances before he also suffered a fatal overdose in 2002. In 1998, however, Staley reconvened with the band one last time to record two songs that were released on the band’s 1999 box set Music Bank. Staley wrote lyrics for his final song with Alice in Chains, “Died,” that seem like they may have been addressed to Parrott: “My heart is dried up, beating slow/ It’s been deflating since you died.”  

7. A fight inspires “Dam That River”

One of the heaviest songs on 1992’s Dirt, “Dam That River,” is full of violent imagery like “I push and then you stumbled/ I kicked you in the face.” According to the liner notes for Music Bank, however, the lyrics were inspired by the band’s guitarist and drummer actually coming to blows. Their bloody fight culminated in Kinney breaking a coffee table over Cantrell’s head, and the guitarist poured the anger and bad vibes of that incident into writing “Dam That River.” 

6. Alice in Chains makes a triumphant return to No. 1

In 2002, Cantrell toured in support of his solo album Degradation Trip with Atlanta band Comes with the Fall as his opening act. Comes with the Fall frontman William DuVall began regularly joining Cantrell onstage to sing harmonies on Alice in Chains hits. When the surviving members of Alice in Chains decided to tour again after reuniting for a tsunami disaster relief benefit in 2005, they considered several singers before bringing DuVall on as the new fourth member of the band. In 2009, the reunited Alice in Chains released Black Gives Way to Blue, and the first radio single was an instant hit. “Check My Brain” was the band’s first No. 1 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart since 1994’s “No Excuses,” their first No. 1 on Alternative Airplay ever, and is still to date the only Alice in Chains song to appear on the Hot 100.  

5. “Nutshell” goes platinum

“Nutshell” is a slow, quiet 1994 song that was never released as a single, featuring a desolate and hopeless Staley lyric: “I fight this battle all alone/ No one to cry to, no place to call home.” Over the years, though, “Nutshell” has become one of the most beloved Alice in Chains songs, opening their 1996 episode of MTV Unplugged and later covered by Staind, Shinedown and Seether. In concert, the current lineup of Alice in Chains dedicates “Nutshell” to Staley, displaying a montage of photos of the singer during performances of the song. In 2022, “Nutshell” was certified platinum, and this year it leapfrogged over “Rooster” to become the band’s third most streamed song on Spotify. 

4. The one-off supergroup Alice Mudgarden

Members of Seattle’s most famous bands have played together in several side projects and supergroups, with Temple of the Dog and Staley’s Mad Season even recording entire albums. A more fleeting supergroup, dubbed ‘Alice Mudgarden,’ convened to record one song for the first acoustic EP by Alice in Chains, 1992’s Sap. “Right Turn” features Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Mudhoney’s Mark Arm harmonizing and trading off lead vocals with Staley on a lyric penned by Cantrell. 

3. Seattle declares Layne Staley Day 

August 22 was officially declared Layne Staley Day in the city of Seattle by Mayor Jenny Durkan in 2019, on what would’ve been the singer’s 52nd birthday. The occasion served primarily to promote the Layne Staley Memorial Fund, a charity founded by Staley’s parents in 2002 to provide treatment and recovery funds to address heroin addiction in the Seattle music community. 

2. “Would?” kicks off two multi-platinum albums

Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood was the first of several notable Seattle musicians who died young as a result of heroin addiction in 1990. Alice in Chains dedicated their debut album Facelift to Wood later that year, and Cantrell wrote the song “Would?” about him in 1992. “Would?” wound up being the lead single to two massive albums in 1992, the soundtrack for the Cameron Crowe film Singles, which went double platinum, and the second Alice in Chains album Dirt, which eventually sold five million copies. 

1. Jar of Flies makes Billboard history

Alice in Chains returned home from touring in support of Dirt in 1993, and decided to record some quiet new material to help break in Inez as their new bassist. Jar of Flies was recorded in a week as a casual sequel to the band’s first acoustic EP, 1992’s Sap, without lofty commercial expectations to become a proper follow-up to Dirt. With the band’s popularity rapidly growing, however, Jar of Flies sold 140 thousand copies in its first week in January 1994, making history as the first EP to top the Billboard 200. Since then, only a handful of other EPs have hit No. 1 on the chart, including Jay-Z and Linkin Park’s 2004 collaboration Collision Course and the K-pop group NewJeans in 2023. Jar of Flies was nominated for two Grammys and eventually went four times platinum.