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Alice In Chains: Facelift - Album Of The Week Club review

Alice In Chains' debut album Facelift reinvented heavy metal and sent grunge into the charts

Alice In Chains - Facelift
(Image: © Alice In Chains)
Alice In Chains - Facelift

(Image credit: Alice In Chains)

We Die Young
Man in the Box
Sea of Sorrow
Bleed the Freak
I Can't Remember
Love, Hate, Love
It Ain't Like That
Sunshine
Put You Down
Confusion
I Know Somethin (Bout You)
Real Thing

Alice In Chains' debut album, Facelift, was the first blockbuster grunge album, the first grunge album to leave an impression on the charts, thanks to the success of unexpected hit single Man In The Box.

It was also one of the most influential. Its steely riffs and haunting harmonies were imitated but never bettered, capturing the spirit of a changing age and paving the way for Nevermind, Ten and Badmotorfinger, all of which followed AIC’s debut up the charts in the ensuing months.

While the musicianship was creatively crisp and morbidly vital, it was their uniquely troubled singer Layne Staley who gave intimacy and vulnerability to the songs. Without Staley, it’s unlikely that the band could possibly have fulfilled their obvious potential.

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Background

Alice In Chains' demo, The Treehouse Tapes, ended up in the hands of Nick Terzo, an A&R man with Columbia Records, who signed the band. Nick passed it on to Dave Jerden, who told the band they should go in and record another demo. 

A few months later, Dave received a new six- track tape. One of the songs was Man In The Box, destined to become AIC’s breakthrough hit.

“When I got that six-track demo, and it had Man In The Box and all the great songs from that first album, that’s when I really thought we could be on to something,” said Jerden.

He travelled up to Seattle to start working on Alice In Chains’ debut album. The band took him out to the local clubs, where he saw grunge pioneers such as Soundgarden and Mother Love Bone

“You could tell that something was in the air,” he says. “I had kind of been aware of this ‘Seattle sound’ that people were talking about, but to be there felt very exciting.”

Other albums released in August 1990

  • Blaze of Glory - Jon Bon Jovi
  • Bellybutton - Jellyfish
  • Pornograffiti - Extreme
  • Bossanova - Pixies
  • Eaten Back To Life - Cannibal Corpse
  • Time's Up - Living Colour
  • Tyr - Black Sabbath
  • Against the Law - Stryper
  • Detonator - Ratt
  • FireHouse - FireHouse
  • Persistence of Time - Anthrax
  • Ritual de lo Habitual - Jane's Addiction
  • The Earth, a Small Man, His Dog and a Chicken - REO Speedwagon

What they said...

"Facelift has some of the most iconic Alice in Chains songs, but there’s pretty much all in the first half of it. The second half of Facelift is much less memorable. It Ain’t Like That and Sunshine are still marginally remembered today, but the album peaks with Love, Hate, Love and slowly loses the identity if built after that." (Dead End Follies

"Facelift is a record that proves that grunge and metal, like many opposing sides in history, where not so wholly different from each other, and I mean that in a positive way. Both sides brought heavier musicianship than others, both sides had aggressive signing, and both sides possess such a dark energy that has influenced so many other bands we hear today." (Sputnik Music)

"Neither hedonistic nor especially technically accomplished, Alice in Chains' songs were mostly slow, oppressive dirges with a sense of melody that was undeniable, yet which crept along over the murky sludge of the band's instrumental attack in a way that hardly fit accepted notions of what made hard rock catchy and accessible." (AllMusic)

What you said...

Tony Holiday: Absolutely phenomenal album. As in my humble opinion all the AIC albums are. Such talent. And so sad to loose Layne. Makes you wonder if things had been different what they would be producing now!

Pekka Turunen: It's a good, solid debut, but only a few of the songs are real killer tunes. We Die Young, Man in the Box and Bleed the Freak mostly, and some others are very good too. I'm not a fan of how they chose to slow down the tempos for the album after doing some pretty energetic demos beforehand. Especially the demo version of We Die Young, found on the Nothing Safe compilation, is way more aggressive than the final version. And not just the tempo, but Layne's vocals too. For some reason they decided to go for a slower grind, and I'm not entirely into it when comparing the two. I like the next two albums a lot more, but this was a fine beginning.

Mark Ellis: I'll never forget getting this album. After the hair bands started becoming caricatures of themselves (Same Old Situation by Motley Crue just sounded like Motley Crue trying to sound like Poison trying to sound like Motley Crue), it was time for something different. I heard this album and still remember thinking, "finally!" It was so dark, and so personal, and just so raw and honest. I loved the harmonies Layne and Jerry put down together, which would just get stronger on subsequent releases. Love Hate Love is the standout track to me. Layne's voice was so powerful on that song, you couldn't help but feel his pain. It was real, it was raw, and it was a punch in the gut. I still listen to this album straight through to this day. Never ceases to amaze me.

Randy Banner: I've long said that Alice In Chains is the soundtrack of my depression, and I mean that in the best possible way. Dirt holds my favourite AIC song (Would), and Jar Of Flies is my favourite album (Rotten Apple is immaculate), but Facelift is a solid release and very impressive for a debut, but like the Boston debut from last week, I feel like the front half of the album overshadows the back. 

Moody tracks like Sea Of Sorrow, Bleed The Freak, Love Hate Love, and the great, if overplayed, Man In The Box etch themselves in the brain while, even after multiple spins, the back-half tracks remain somewhat forgettable to me. It's a dark, depressing album but merely a precursor to the darkness that would later emerge. 8.5/10

Jacob Tannehill: One of the few debut albums that were outstanding. But, the follow up was even better. Using last week as an example. Boston’s first album was outstanding but their follow up couldn’t come near the first album. Dirt really took Alice to new heights and made them huge.

Facelift is awesome and fell in the middle of grunge and metal, with leaning more towards the metal side. These guys came out swinging with the 1,2,3 punch of We Die Young, Man In the Box, and Sea of Sorrow. Songs like Bleed the Freak and It Ain’t Like That keep the album chugging along. I Know Something (About You) is a cool tune! Great album, with only great things to come, along with the downside of fame (drugs, etc).

Fun fact, I saw them open for Van Halen when Facelift came out and they were face-melting. I saw them the next year at Lollapalooza, when Dirt came out and it was two different bands. And that was a good thing.

Jonathan Novajosky: I've always been a fan of Man In The Box but this was my first time listening to the whole album. I came away impressed, though I don't think Facelift is as strong as some other popular grunge albums like STP's Purple or Pearl Jam's Ten. The vocals can be spotty for me at times, but I suppose that's part of the appeal. Outside of Man In The Box, I loved the hard rocking (and almost groovy) intros to Put You Down and I Know Somethin (Bout You). I will probably come back to this album to see if it grows on me. 7/10

Hannah Wolfe: One of the greatest debuts in rock. Love, Hate, Love will forever remain one of Layne's finest vocal performances and it will always be one of my favourite songs. This record was so much darker than anything else that was out at the time, and there was something exciting about that to me. Along with albums like Ten and Badmotorfinger, this album changed the game forever.

Brian Anderson: Ahhhhh, the 90s. Britain gave the world Britpop, rap and hip hop took a stranglehold, DJ’s became megastars, and best of all America handed the world the gift of grunge. Ahhhh, the 90s, the decade that still blights music history today. I love all forms of rock music, apart from grunge. I just don’t get it. There’s some great musicianship on this album, and some great variation in the music itself, but it’s lost in the whine of the vocals. If this were an instrumental album I’d be raving about it. Having said that, typical of most grunge singers to come, Staley was an outstanding vocalist. It’s just not my thing.

Carl Black: I'm not usually in a position to disagree as a lot of the albums featured -  I'm listening to them for the first time - but I do disagree here. This band is all about Jerry Cantrell and his guitar playing. AIC would be nothing without him. That said the three other members play there part which makes this album almost perfect. It flies out the traps. The first four songs are perfection. Jerry's riffs are so unique and intently identifiable. The tracks do run out of steam on the second half but my opinion was made up by then. This is a classic album. In every sense.

Chris Downie: While revisionist history has a tendency to overplay Nirvana's hand in changing the face of music and ushering in the demise of the bloated 80s hair metal scene, the more nuanced viewpoint recognises the inestimable contributions of Alice in Chains in setting the scene for what was to come.

Like Soundgarden, AIC had more metal in them than most of their peers who were bestowed with the grunge label, and this undoubtedly widened their appeal beyond flannel-shirted, shoe-gazing teens. However, there is a nagging feeling that this debut, classic though it is, represents a band in transition; witness the trace elements of their glam-tinged roots in I Know Something ('Bout You) for instance.

When all is said and done, despite tailing off slightly in the latter part, Facelift is rightly lauded as a classic album of its time, but it was on its follow-up that they proved their genius.

John Davidson: This is grunge at its heaviest edge. An album constructed out of second-hand Black Sabbath riffs and bleak harmonies.

Cantrell's guitar work is great without being too elaborate. Perhaps it suffers a little from the grungy mix, but overall it works within the context of the album.

The drumming and bass support the leads without ever stepping into the spotlight.

As an album that sets out to paint a picture of angry despair and the oppressive gloom of Seattle it works magnificently.

I can't believe I missed this out when it was released.

I guess I was seduced by the hits on Dirt, but found some of the lesser tracks so awful I wasn't tempted to try face-lift beyond a CD single of Man In A Box.

Overall this is the more accomplished album, not quite up there with Soundgarden's Superunknown or Pearl Jam's Ten, but better than the more celebrated Dirt.

While Facelift doesn't have an obvious crowd-pleaser like Would? Or Them Bones it doesn't have any clunkers at all.

Overall this was an unexpected pleasure.

That said, it is a tough listen at times and Layne Staley's tortured vocals fit the mood too well.

Roland Bearne: I was all about the likes of Van Halen, Crue, Ratt, Warrant et al the dietary equivalent of burgers, pizza, space dust and chocolate served by androgynous creatures from a parallel dimension then suddenly I'm transported to a roadside cafe on the A1 being served by suicidal nerds in checked shirts offering me meat and two veg on a badly washed plate! 

Grunge took a bit of getting used to and whilst I made sure as a music fan that I listened to as much as possible AIC flickered briefly on the radar but didn't shine brightly. Jerry Cantrell's guitar work is truly great classic rock throughout, Stanley's lyrics and vocals are unique and among the best in the genre (Cornell obviously takes that title!) but it's so relentlessly depressing! It's good, very good, but still not by favourite cocktail for all its classic ingredients and unique flavour.

Marco LG: Nirvana gets the credit as the biggest band in Grunge, and possibly deservedly so, but to the metal listener of the 80s it was Alice in Chains that made all the difference. For better or worse, depending on your point of view of course. The ‘good’ is this is an album that stood the test of time very well, sounds fresh and electrifying as it did when it came out, and certainly deserves the label of classic rock (and metal). 

The ‘bad’ is that to my metal ears it sounds heavy and menacing for all the wrong reasons. The message went from “there are only monsters out there” to “there is a monster within you and you cannot control it”. Given this happened more or less at the time of my late teenage years I wasn’t ready to accept it and went in “Hate Grunge” mode for pretty much the whole of the 90s.

It is the ‘ugly’ however that really stands between me and the possibility of enjoying this album in full. This is the Alice in Chains album everybody tried to outdo. Dirt sold way better but it was Facelift that changed heavy metal forever. Yes, it did wipe out glam (or hair) metal off the face of the planet (and we can argue it was needed), but it also did something much worse: it made every heavy metal band wanting to sound like Alice in Chains. 

By the end of the decade well established bands, with a well established sound, self-destructed trying to do just that: Bruce Dickinson published Skunkworks, Queensryche published Hear In The New Frontier and even Dream Theatre jumped on the bandwagon with Falling Into Infinity.

We will never know whether it was a deliberate attempt by the major labels or a genuine artistic wish, but this album was ripped off countless times. It is full of riffs, instrumental passages, vocal lines and simple arrangements that can be heard elsewhere, often where they really should have never been, and spotting them influences the listening experience so much it cannot be ignored.

In conclusion, this is a pretty good debut, by a band that changed Heavy Metal forever and went on to publish an even greater album at the next attempt. It is however marred by what came afterwards, and often sounds like a jukebox of all the worst music produced in the 90s. This is not the fault of Alice in Chains of course, and in fact so many ‘citations’ by such a diverse array of bands should really testify the value of the music, but for me it detracts so much from the pleasure of listening it can only be reflected in a low mark.

Brian Carr: I liked Alice In Chains from the beginning and even played a couple of these tracks in a cover band in the early 90s, but looking back, I don’t know that I listened to the entire Facelift album that much. Like many commenters, Dirt was the go-to when I reached for the Chains.

Nirvana are revered, but I prefer Alice In Chains by a wide margin. First and foremost, Jerry Cantrell is a fantastic guitar player, probably my favourite from the Seattle wave. Secondly, the vocals, while dark and brooding (OK, depressing) still have melody to them. I feel like the late Lane Staley sang more than moaned and whined like other 90s singers. The interplay between the voices of Staley and Cantrell were interesting and unique. So on my scorecard, melody, great guitar work and excellent vocals: check, check and check.

In hindsight, Facelift is more stylistically diverse than Dirt, which kind of makes sense considering it was their debut and music was reaching a transitional point. That diversity of sound didn’t go away, as evidenced by the two acoustic EPs they released. Great band!

Final Score: 8.18 ⁄10 (267 votes cast, with a total score of 2186)

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