Alice in Chains Biography and Profile

alice in chains band photo
Alice in Chains. Photo courtesy Capitol Music Group.

Alice in Chains Overview:

Alice in Chains were one of the bands that made up the so-called Seattle sound of the 1990s, excelling at moody hard rock songs that touched on dark subject matter. Alice in Chains didn’t have the same massive mainstream success or longevity as some of their grunge peers, but they proved to be an influential band whose career was cut short by the death of their lead singer, Layne Staley.

Alice in Chains' Origins:

Alice in Chains began as a Layne Staley project in the mid-‘80s in Seattle. Soon, Staley teamed up with guitarist Jerry Cantrell, who recruited two friends (drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Starr) to become the band’s rhythm section. After touring and recording some demos, Alice in Chains singed with Columbia Records at the end of the decade.

A Bleak Debut:

Alice in Chains’ full-length debut, Facelift, came out in 1990. The album, largely written by Jerry Cantrell, was a decidedly bleak affair concerning outcasts, heathens and the permanently disillusioned. Layne Staley’s moaning, powerful vocals made these metal and hard rock tunes even more unsettling – his singsong growl on “Man in the Box” was both catchy and fearsome. Facelift opened the door for the later (and bigger) success of groups like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, and in turn those bands’ mainstream breakthrough would help usher AIC toward a higher level of visibility down the road.

A Rising Profile:

In 1992, a mostly acoustic EP named Sap indicated the band’s burgeoning potential. Instead of the sludgy hard rock of Facelift, Sap’s moody, mysterious tunes were compelling and arresting while at the same time being very subdued musically. A few months after Sap’s release, Alice in Chains appeared on the soundtrack to Singles, which featured several alternative-rock acts like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins.

The notoriety that the Singles soundtrack provided helped build anticipation for the release of the band’s next full-length record.

Finding Treasure in the 'Dirt':

Coming out in September 1992, Dirt firmly placed Alice in Chains in the firmament of other successful Seattle bands of the era. Ironically, Dirt was far more ugly and despairing than their contemporaries’ albums, painting such a portrait of hopeless drug addiction and shattered lives that its quadruple-platinum sales seemed all the more unlikely. Launching five singles onto Billboard’s Mainstream Rock charts, Dirt demonstrated a band’s growing confidence at writing hard rock and metal material that made room for accessibility but not at the expense of a determinedly downbeat worldview.

Good Times, Bad Times:

By 1994, the band had lost bassist Mike Starr, who was replaced by Mike Inez. Meanwhile, Alice released another EP, Jar of Flies. (Later editions of Jar of Flies would include Sap as a twofer.) As with Sap, Jar of Flies was a more scaled-back affair, offering acoustic numbers and stylistic excursions that would have seemed out of place on a proper Alice in Chains album but proved how musically dexterous the group was. Jar’s commercial success, including their first No.

1 hit on the Mainstream Rock charts with “No Excuses,” was tarnished by Layne Staley’s developing drug habit, which made touring extremely difficult.

Alice in Chains Lose Their Focus:

A year later, the band returned with Alice in Chains. Whether it can be blamed on Cantrell’s lack of inspired songs or Staley’s worsening health, Alice in Chains simply didn’t have the fire of the band’s previous efforts, resulting in a record with great moments but an overall weak focus. Further demonstrating trouble within the band, Cantrell took over lead vocals on several album tracks. With the group not touring, it appeared to most observers that the darkness Alice in Chains chronicled was close to swallowing them whole.


Alice in Chains recorded an Unplugged session with MTV in 1996, which proved to be one of the last public appearances for the band with Staley as frontman.

Afterward, the group went on hiatus while Cantrell worked on a solo album backed by several Alice band mates. With Alice in Chains not developing new material, the group lost its cultural relevance with only a few compilations left behind to document their achievement. Then in 2002, Staley was found dead in his apartment from a drug overdose.

Reunion ... With a New Frontman:

The Alice in Chains brand was reactivated in 2006 for a reunion tour, recruiting William DuVall to be the band’s new singer. Alice in Chains returned to the studio two years later to begin recording their first album since 1995’s Alice in Chains. The new record, Black Gives Way to Blue, was released September 29, 2009. Lead single "Check My Brain" features co-lead vocals from Cantrell and DuVall and second single "Your Decision" has Cantrell singing lead. The title track, sung by Cantrell, is a tribute to Layne Staley featuring Elton John on piano. 

'The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here':

For their fifth album Alice In Chains returned with the same lineup as their reunion album for 2013's The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here. Like Black Gives Way to Blue the majority of the songs were written by Cantrell with slightly more songwriting contributions from his bandmates. The album it features co-lead vocals by Cantrell and DuVall as well as songs where the two singers split lead vocal duties. The album produced the hit singles "Hollow," "Stone," and "Voices."


Alice in Chains Lineup:

Jerry Cantrell – guitar, vocals
William DuVall – guitar, vocals
Mike Inez – bass
Sean Kinney – drums

Former Members:

Layne Staley – vocals
Mike Starr – bass


Essential Alice in Chains Album:

Dirt has precisely one song that could be considered “catchy” – the closing track “Would?,” which was also included on the Singles soundtrack. Before you get to that song, though, get ready for a bleak descent into misery. Like many of their grunge peers, Alice in Chains were writing startling songs about alienation, but this band just had no interest in leavening their harsh tales with arena hooks.

Instead, Dirt’s strong melodic undercurrent is buried under Cantrell’s jarring guitars and Staley’s anguished, demonic wails. These are songs about trying to pull yourself out of a deep hole, and their power comes from the band’s refusal to make that journey remotely comforting.

Alice in Chains Discography:

Facelift (1990)
Sap (EP) (1992)
Dirt (1992)
Jar of Flies (EP) (1994)
Alice in Chains (1995)
Unplugged (live album) (1996)
Nothing Safe (greatest-hits album) (1999)
Music Box (box set) (1999)
Live (live album) (2000)
Black Gives Way to Blue (2009)
The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here (2013)

(Edited by Bob Schallau)