Alice in Chains – Sap EP (1992)

Today marks the passing of a decade since Layne Staley… moved on, shall we say. Or “broke free” might be another way of putting it, since his constant struggle with drug addiction might very well be regarded as imprisonment. In any case, I don’t feel this is a sad day, or at least I don’t see it as anything but a day to celebrate the great music that Layne graced us with. And what better way to celebrate it than to recommend the Sap EP, released on the 21st of March 1992.

I like these sort of axis kind of things. 1992 produced two of Alice in Chains’ greatest records – this acoustic, tonic, bright little five-track record, and the formidable Dirt album, about which I wrote a while ago. It’s nice to listen to this folk-ish, relaxed, earthy music, denoting so much joy, such a smooth feeling of ease and simplicity, as it puts things into perspective – it took a mere ten years for things to become so irreparable for Layne that he simply couldn’t survive any longer. But this record offers only a slight hint of that path, a subtle suggestion of darkness in an otherwise open, crystal clear emotional/musical gem.

As the story goes, Alice in Chains’ drummer, Sean Kinney had a dream about releasing an EP titled Sap, so the band decided to do just that, in the off chance it was, you know, destiny knocking. The band were joined by Ann Wilson, singer for the band Heart, bringing a very welcome female voice addition to the laid-back sound the EP was going for. Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell and Mudhoney’s own Mark Arm collaborated on the Right Turn song, which ended up being credited Alice Mudgarden because of this – a typical display of the form of humor floating around the grunge scene at the time. And just to drive the pairing of sarcasm and absurdity home, the officially four-track EP has an unlisted track, which is little more than the band goofing off in the studio in a Rocky Horror Picture Show-esque breakdown involving a Spaghetti Western-sounding piano and a lot of funny noises. Perhaps this is why I feel there’s such an air of childlike glee surrounding this EP…

In any case, I think this record works very well as a mood setter for an early spring evening, and as a soundtrack for celebrating Layne Staley’s unique, unforgettable voice. I leave you with all the tracks on Sap, as a special treat. See you soon!

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Melvins – Stag (1996)

This coughing sickness kicked my ass somethin’ fierce. I apologize for not posting anything for so long. I actually went home for some recovery time and reading and the chance to listen to my records again. Didn’t help much with the sickness, but it recharged my batteries. Serendipitously, I managed to catch up to my “listening list” – bands I know I should have listened to already but neglected to, for whatever reason. From this perspective, it was a very productive, although spastic week, especially since I managed to tune in and immerse myself in Melvins’ brilliance. Given that my last post was about Alice in Chains, my favorite grunge band, I figured I should write about Melvins, one of the bands cited as a major influence by most of the players in the Seattle grunge scene of the early nineties.

Source: alarmpress.com

True to my affinity for bands which are hard to classify, I fell for Melvins almost instantly. It took me a few months, true, but I’d say that’s relatively expedient given their immensely wide exploratory range and influence. They’re responsible not only for shaping the grunge sensibility, but also sludge metal, and influencing bands like Tool, Boris and Isis, which are gender-benders in their own right. Truly impressive is the consistency with which King Buzzo (voice and guitars) and Dale Crover (drums) shape their music into the staggering display of experimentation and sheer mass they weave, all while changing bass players so often it’s probably the hardest thing to keep track of concerning the band’s output.

Throughout their career, Melvins have changed styles as often as Sonic Youth (which is to say pretty damn often), switching from punk to slow, hard and heavy punk, to stoner, drone, sludge and experimental metal within a decade. Their agility is remarkable not only from one album to the next, but within the confines of a single record, which is why I’m eventually going to start writing about Stag, at some point during this post, since it’s one of the albums which I think illustrates this multifaceted approach most eloquently.

This record feels to me like a very well constructed utterance, like an impeccable speech, covering a number of bullet points with accuracy and patience, in a remarkably articulate fashion. It starts on a strong note, an engaging statement (one of the most bad ass stoner-rock tracks I’ve ever heard), moves swiftly to a joke, to endear audiences, follows with some meaty, satisfying exposition, then another joke… you get the point. Every song on the album seems like it covers another point about their musical interests and forms of expression, and the record as a whole is punctuated with little tracks which do wonders to keep a certain mood, alternatively ominous and funny, and to give unexpected coherence to an otherwise overwhelmingly eclectic collection of songs. The band moves from repetitive, pounding rhythms which remind me of Queens of the Stone Age’s “robot rock”, to whimsical meta-metal in the style of Primus, to something which sounds like Metallica n their early nineties, to murky ambient industrial desert musical nightmares, drowned in echo and terrifying drones, only to bat their lashes and move on, over and over and over, in a tantalizing and completely genuine parade of musical languages, spoken perfectly. My amazement and admiration is doubled here, because of the fact that Melvins were probably the first band to delve into these territories in the first place, and it’s rare for pioneers to show such mastery of the trails they blaze.

In any case, the overall mood of the album seems fit for a bipolar night out, from party to panic, from amusement to anxiety, from jocularity to jugular threat. If you’re feeling especially exploratory, give the Melvins a proper chance, they’re definitely on par with great names like Frank Zappa and Primus, although I feel like they outclass almost any one of their peers I can think of, save perhaps for Sonic Youth. Enjoy, and I’ll see you soon!