Forget Dirt – Facelift is Alice In Chains’ most influential album

(Image credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

It’s a rare thing when a band can storm the mainstream charts with a fully formed, revolutionary sound on their first attempt. But that’s what Alice in Chains did when they released Facelift in 1990.

Although Dirt is often considered their magnum opus, Facelift is the wellspring — the album from which all other albums spouted. And its influence can still be felt today. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, we take a look at the impact Facelift had on the early nineties’ music scene, how it shaped the band’s sound and where you can find its fingerprints today.

Before Facelift hit the charts, glam metal ruled the Billboard 100. Bands like Whitesnake, Poison, and Mötley Crüe dominated the charts and lyrical content was a hedonistic ode to partying and living life to excess. Facelift signified a turning of the tide.

It hit radio stations like a kick in the balls. The unique hard rock, heavy metal and blues-inspired sound was confident, unusual and almost fully formed. There were enough recognisable elements from familiar genres to help tie the sound to the metal scene, but enough of a new approach to make it interesting. The proof is in its legacy — thirty years later you can still find some of the band’s most-loved hits on that first album, including Man in the Box, We Die Young and Bleed the Freak. After the release of their second single, it would only take 18 months for this album to catapult AIC into the mainstream.

The band’s founding members, Jerry Cantrell (guitar/vocals) and Layne Staley (vocals) would draw from lived experiences with depression, addiction, and the harsh realities of life to write lyrics which were vastly different from the themes set down in glam rock. The result was a raw but resonant depiction of disillusioned youth.

We Die Young is about gang violence. That’s something that was happening in Seattle and something that opened our eyes,” Staley told MuchMusic. “Things were getting out of hand — incidents where kids were getting shot and their tennis shoes being ripped off of their dead bodies. It just seems like these kids are dying at younger and younger ages and getting involved in gang activity.”

The lyrical content of Man in the Box is arguably one of the reasons it made such an impact when it was released to radio in 1990. Ominous and raw, the tone is established right from those opening lines (I’m the man in the box, buried in my shit) and is widely considered to be the track that made the band.

Love, Hate, Love is Staley’s darkly candid exploration of a tumultuous romantic relationship. Bleed the Freak is a venomous exaltation of revenge. Sunshine was written by Cantrell about the death of his mother. “When she passed away, it was a really shitty time,” he told Spin magazine, “I didn’t know how to deal with it then, and I still don’t.”

Although bands like Cannibal Corpse were also exploring darker lyrical themes during that time, it didn’t pack the same relatable emotional impact as Facelift. Similarly, the first wave of emo music was in full swing during the early nineties, but mainstream listeners weren’t quite ready to embrace it — Alice in Chains hit a sweet spot and dominated it from the outset.

As the nineties progressed, nu metal took up grunge’s moody lyrical themes and repackaged them. Linkin Park, Slipknot and Korn drew on personal experiences with addiction, abuse, depression and darkness, to fuel their music. The lasting success of these bands is proof that brutal lyrical honesty is still resoundingly popular today.

“I believe that on Facelift, Layne was portraying a dark world from the outside looking in. It’s only later that they were right inside it looking out,” said Dave Jerden, producer on Facelift.

(Image credit: Alison Braun/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

AIC’s first album was pivotal in changing the sound of popular music at the time and would go on to have ramifications within the nu metal scene in later years. Before grunge arrived, male vocalists like Axl Rose, Bruce Dickinson and Rob Halford had popularised a high-note singing style. Enter Layne Staley and his trademark ‘yarling’ baritone. His vocal style was so different from the norm that some radio stations wouldn’t give AIC airtime because he ‘sounded wrong’.

"I knew that voice was the guy I wanted to be playing with. It sounded like it came out of a 350-pound biker rather than skinny little Layne. I considered his voice to be my voice,” Cantrell told Rolling Stone in 2002. This unique vocal style is still echoed in the likes of Sully Erna and Hugo Ferreira.

The unique voice and hauntingly bleak harmonies were the perfect complement to Cantrell’s drop-D tuning — a stylistic element he says he picked up from Tony Iommi and Eddie Van Halen (although Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil has also claimed some of the credit).

"[Drop-D] guitar just sounds better to me, it sounds chunkier and thicker”, Cantrell told Rock & Roll Fantasy Camp Q&A. "A lot of bands I liked messed around with a little over tunings over 440 or whatever. I always liked the weight of that, it seemed to have a little bit more attitude than 440."

Some of Dirt’s most-loved tracks are clearly modelled around the trademark stylistic elements pioneered in Facelift. This is most evident in Them Bones, Rain When I Die and Angry Chair, which use the talk box guitar and oppressive yarling harmonies. The raw vulnerability that hit such a nerve with listeners had been dialled up. The trademark vocals had been stacked to increase their impact. The lyrical angst was even darker. You can hear very similar techniques in later tracks like Drone, Heaven Beside You and The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here.

Facelift was where Alice In Chains found their style,” says Jerden. “And Man in the Box was the first song that introduced the world to the grunge sound. It was never a case of luck. That record was meant to be.”

Cane Hill vocalist, Elijah Witt, agrees: “I think Man in the Box is the song that got them to where they wanted to be, because if you listen to Dirt, it’s clearly the direction that they wanted to be going in.”

At thirty years old, the impact and influence of Facelift shows no sign of slowing. Its trademark sound is indelible — traces of it can be found in the DNA of sludge metal and nu metal. The latter would also pick up distortion techniques to add extra grit and texture to their sound.

The combination of hard rock dirge and drawn out vocals is evident in music by Godsmack (who took their name directly from an AIC song title) Dilly Dally, Windhand, and Deftones. The same blend of ethereal vocals and guitar distortion layered over oppressive bass can also be found in dark, folky music by Emma Ruth Rundle and Chelsea Wolfe.

The angst-ridden, brutally honest lyrical themes made accessible in Facelift have become so hardwired into certain genres of metal that it’s hard to imagine what that music might be like without them.

As Facelift turns 30, there really hasn’t been a better time to stick this album on and enjoy the sound that kickstarted a new era of music.