The 1992 release proved that lighter sounds and hushed tones can punch harder than anyone thought
Throughout the course of history, it's rare to come across music that could change culture and shift society. Like a tidal wave changing the formation of the shore after it crashes, the music of the early 1990s, mainly coming out of Seattle, Washington, created a new and everlasting mark on the surface of music and the collective soul of a generation.
I recognize the depth of a statement like that and I'll stand by it for as long as I live. There's a reason this period of music has been reviewed, studied, analyzed, and written about continuously for over 30 years and counting. A few loudly strummed guitar chords backed by a snare and bass drum beat couldn't do such a thing all by itself. We've had music since the dawn of time, so in order to do something truly memorable, much more than our sense of hearing must be engaged. If music is going to change the course of an entire generation of people it must pummel the very core of those people and rebuild them in a new and profound way.
I was slowly and methodically, without even knowing it was happening, being rebuilt through music beginning in the late 1980s. It wasn't a very long process but it was a necessary one. I was lucky enough to be on the cusp of "adulthood" back then, and in February of 1992, approaching the ripe old age of 19, the rebuild was complete with the release of Sap by Alice in Chains, Seattle's darkest and most introspective band to come out of that period.
Nirvana exploded through the door and got things started on a global scale, Pearl Jam has sold more records and garnered more publicity, and Soundgarden was one of the very first of the Seattle bands to form and thus lead the way for the rest of them, but it was Alice in Chains who nailed the touch, the feel, and the sound, that not only rebuilt me, but any and every Gen X kid who'd ever fell in love with the energy and power of music.
Sap was released on February 4th, 1992 on Columbia Records. In my opinion, it's the record that, more than any other release from the 90s, perfectly captures the feel and atmosphere of what all the music from that time was trying to convey. It may only contain five songs (really four as the fifth is a hidden track where the band all switch instruments and created a haunted circus theme on meth) but it's just enough to get their point across and cement their place in history. Sometimes less is more and Sap is proof of this concept.
The lead track, "Brother" begins with the eerie strumming of Jerry Cantrell's acoustic guitar, instantly creating a vibe that's carried through the rest of the record. Cantrell sings lead on this song, (at the urging of main lead vocalist, Layne Staley) and creates an aura of longing and pain, and eventually cautious hopefulness, surrounding the family dynamics following his parents divorce. Being a product of divorce from a young age myself, this song grabbed a hold of me and hasn't let go.
Helped along in the choruses, Cantrell is joined by Staley and the queen of Seattle music, Ann Wilson of Heart. The melodies and harmonies emanating from the souls of the three singers are enough to make the song, and the entire release a hit, but this is only the beginning.
"You were always so far away
I know that pain
So don't you run away like you used to do"
The imagery of the words alone are more than powerful, add the three voices mentioned above and you're whisked away into another dimension, holding out hope that everything will be ok. Cantrell goes on to "talk" to his brother, who he no longer lives with, due to their parents' divorce and ends the song on a heartbreaking note:
"Pictures in a box at home
Yellowing and green with mold
So I can barely see your face
Wonder how that color taste"
"Got Me Wrong" picks up the pace ever so slightly, this time Staley shares lead vocal duties with Cantrell, who wrote the song about the all to common practice of trying to change someone you're in a relationship with. The song is bigger and more upbeat than "Brother" using classic AIC electric guitar sounds and epic choruses. There's a darkness permeating throughout of course, but in a different way than what came before. Staley's larger presence on this track gives it that ominous feel we've all become accustomed to on an Alice in Chains song.
The third track, "Right Turn", is quite possibly the song that defines this period of music for me. Not only is it a great song as far as pure sound and structure are concerned, but it's the first time I remember hearing a song with such collaboration.
If you're not sure what I meant by that last sentence, or are confused by the song being credited to Alice Mudgarden, both Staley and Cantrell enlisted the help of Mark Arm from the seminal "grunge" band Mudhoney, and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden to sing on this track. It's something I cannot recall hearing before (or since for that matter) in terms of combining singers from "competing" bands coming together to raise another band's song to soaring heights. Rock bands have always had an air of contention and territorialism about them. The Seattle scene in the early 90s didn't feel that way at this point (Kurt Cobain's snarky comments about some bands aside) and this song is proof.
The song begins with Jerry Cantrell on lead vocals and feels and sounds the way an Alice in Chains song should. Suddenly though, and without warning, the familiar tones and sonic bliss that is Soundgarden's Chris Cornell wash through the speakers. Your ears get happy and you dare not move a muscle so as to not miss what surprise might be coming next.
You're not asked to wait long for the next change as Layne Staley comes roaring in for the next verse and it's back to being an Alice in Chains song once again. Maybe Cornell snuck into the session for that one verse, ending the surprises. Luckily that's not the case. After Staley does his part, the low, "I don't give a fuck" bellow and groan of Mark Arm from the aforementioned Mudhoney nails the final verse and your mind is now officially blown.
The song fades away with an amassment of voices raining down on your now severely and beautifully destroyed head, covering you in the best of what this new musical scene has to offer. I can vividly remember laying on the bed in my room at my house in Brooklyn, NY and feeling like the 2,413 miles separating me from Seattle, WA was closer to two feet. THIS is what this new sound was all about. To this day, if I'm asked what those early days sounded like or how would I define the music of the era (even though it was all quite different), my answer is always "Go listen to Sap".
Not including the hidden track "Love Song" I described earlier in the piece, the true closer of the record is "Am I Inside". A slow, acoustic track that sounds like the theme song to a nightmare you'd never want to have. Moving at a snail's pace, the song reintroduces Ann Wilson back into the fold as the only witness to the pain Layne Staley presents us.
If Simon and Garfunkel were a grunge band, this song would fit well as a B-side to "The Sound of Silence" with it's gloomy vibe and sparse arrangement. The lyrics are as dark as the music and atmosphere:
"Loneliness it shadows me
Quicker than darkness
Crawls to the surface of my skin
Visibly surrounded by it"
When those words are used to start the song, chances are it's not going to get much brighter.
"Black is all I feel So this is how it feels to be free
The man's beside himself Man's below himself Man's behind himself Am I inside myself"
Sap is a timeless record written and performed by a band that even 30 years later has a ton to say about the history of rock music. The term "Grunge" is just that, a term. Ironically it's Mark Arm of Mudhoney who is often credited with first using it to describe some of the music from Seattle in the mid/late 80s as having a "grungy, sludgy, loose" feel. The music most of these bands made doesn't sound anything like each other. Nirvana sounds nothing like Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains doesn't sound like Mudhoney, and so on. That being said, there is a feel and aesthetic that is attached to that time though, and for me, Alice in Chains, and Sap in particular, are the best examples of it.
Thirty years of Sap and that tree isn't close to being empty.