The mood and feel of 90s rock music was cemented by this 1994 classic EP
Jar of Flies EP Cover
Music was always something I felt more than I heard. There are so many reasons for this. Studies have been done, books have been written, and the quest to figure it out will always continue. I wrote about music and our feelings/personalities over on Medium (read it here) and I hope you give it a read if you can. Listening to Alice in Chains has certainly produced plenty of feelings over the years.
Jar of Flies was released on January 25th, 1994. It was the first EP to enter the Billboard 200 chart at number one and to date has sold over 4 million copies. Considering it contains only seven tracks and was recorded in just one week, it's no small feat that this record has withstood the sands of time. Its importance, not just to 90s rock and culture, but to rock music overall, cannot be understated.
By the mid-90s, grunge music was everywhere and record labels were scouring the earth for anyone wearing a flannel shirt, shorts, and Doc Martens. The goal was to be the first to find the next Nirvana. Alice in Chains were already entrenched as leaders on the scene due to their mega-successful album Dirt and their inclusion on the soundtrack to Singles, the Cameron Crowe film depicting life in Seattle and the music of the time.
Fresh off an extensive tour in 1993 supporting Dirt, a three month stint on the Lollapalooza festival, as well as the firing of original bassist Mike Starr, the band booked some studio time to play around with ideas they'd come up with while on the road and to see what the recording process would be like with new bass player, Mike Inez.
"After playing loud music for a year, we'd come home and the last thing we wanted to do was crank up the amps right away. That stuff was written on buses and whenever we had downtime. We did Jar of Flies to see how it was to record with [bassist] Mike Inez. We just went into the studio with no songs written, to check out the chemistry. It all fell into place. The sounds and the tones were really good. We thought it would be a waste not to put that material out." - AIC Drummer Sean Kinney/Guitar World
Jar of Flies kicks off, almost fittingly, with a melodic and memorable bass line as if to formally introduce the band's newest member. What follows is a hushed, but stern, atmospheric ballad called "Rotten Apple" which beautifully sets up the entire record. Songwriter and guitarist, Jerry Cantrell washes the listener in a sea of wah, with haunting, melancholy tones that make you feel like you're covered in a blanket of sorrow. Lyrically, singer Layne Staley, takes you on a journey of innocence lost using religious imagery describing the real heartache of adult life, especially one mired in heroin addiction.
Next up is one of Alice in Chains most popular songs, "Nutshell". Keeping with the sonic theme of "Rotten Apple" , this track is mellow and contemplative, with exceptional guitar work. Staley's lyrics are some of the saddest in the AIC catalog. The song is about isolation and loneliness. It's one of the more brutally honest songs that Staley has ever written.
"We chase misprinted lies We face the path of time And yet I fight, and yet I fight This battle all alone No one to cry to No place to call home
Ooh Ooh-ooh Ooh Ooh-ooh
My gift of self is raped My privacy is raked And yet I find, and yet I find Repeating in my head If I can't be my own I'd feel better dead
Ooh Ooh-ooh Ooh Ooh-ooh"
"I Stay Away" changes things up a bit. It comes in like the previous tracks, as a quiet acoustic song, but quickly erupts into a funky, breakdown type chorus that sounds like something that could've been on Dirt. Once again, the theme is dark and brooding and Staley's voice is in top form.
Jerry Cantrell is the musical mind behind Alice in Chains and has many songs soley credited to him, lyrics included. "No Excuses", the lead single from the EP is one of two songs on Jar of Flies that fall into this category. An upbeat, syncopated drum intro segues into a catchy bass line which has become instantly recognizable all these years later. One of the unique strengths of the band was always the perfect harmonies of Cantrell and Staley, regardless of which musician was singing lead on a particular track. "No Excuses" is a shining example of this. The track was the first AIC song to reach number 1 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.
The next song is "Whale and Wasp", a instrumental track with what else, a "wailing" electric guitar on top of a bed strings and quiet acoustic picking. It's a beautiful type of sadness.
"Don't Follow" comes next and this is my personal favorite. It's the second of the two songs soley credited to Cantrell. A gentle, warm intro of soft acoustic guitar is followed by a mournful Cantrell vocal, setting the stage for the rest of the song, or so it seems. This songs has the haunting feel of most of the other tracks on the record, even utilizing a harmonica to accent the pain. Half way through the song, things pick up a bit and Cantrell's hushed vocals give way to a blues influenced Staley as he brings some color to the track, only to hand it back to Cantrell to whisper the song to it's grim conclusion . If you can only listen to one song on Jar of Flies, this is the one.
The EP comes to a close on a very different note with "Swing On This". A jazzy, walking Mike Inez bass line gallops through the song as Layne rips through a classic vocal pattern he's long since been known for. More of a B-side than a single, I think they not only included this on Jar of Flies, but ended the record with it to possibly allow the listener to not walk away feeling so heavy considering the sound and feel of what came before.
During a time when rock music was king, and grunge specifically ruled the world, Alice in Chains delivered a timeless, 7-song, 30 minute, 51 second masterpiece of dark, thoughtful, yet beautiful music. Jar of Flies will always live as one of the best releases of the 90s and it solidified the bands' place in history.