The Classics 045

The Classics 045

Wednesday, 29 May 2024
Alice In Chains – Jar Of Flies (30th Anniversary vinyl reissue) – “No Excuses”

A deeper look at the grooves pressed into the black vinyl 30th Anniversary reissue of Alice In Chains’ Jar Of Flies EP. After seeing the multitude of “deluxe” variants of Alice In Chains’ Jar Of Flies EP that have been released in celebration of its thirtieth anniversary (on multi-colored vinyl, on vinyl with little replica houseflies pressed into it and so on), it’s refreshing to see the record reappear remastered and reissued on the most apt color vinyl possible: on vinyl that’s as black as tar. To be blunt, the concept for this release is simple and bare bones. The focus is on the music, as it should be; as it has been since Jar Of Flies was first released in 1993 – when it won the distinction of being the first EP to reach the Number One position on the Billboard charts. Even so though, this reissue does rank as improved from previous pressings of Jar Of Flies; when it was originally released, Jar Of Flies played a bit unevenly with five cuts on the A-side of the album and just two on the B-/ That questionable choice has now been remedied with the A-side now featuring four cuts and three pressed into the B-. This change illustrates that Jar Of Flies wasn’t just re-pressed, it has been re-evaluated from the ground up and, in listening, it’s easy to hear that while the changes to the record’s running are mild, it brims with new life.

As soon as needle catches groove, listeners who are familiar with the music on Jar Of Flies will feel a flutter of excitement as “Rotten Apple” opens the EP’s A-side because the remastering job applied makes the song sound so bright. Granted, the methodical pace and minor key that the song was written in as well as Layne Staley’s simmering vocal tone insist that listeners move toward the performance to find their way in, but the reward is immediate because the mix on this vinyl reissue has been so carefully presented; the lead guitar figure scrapes in an almost vocal (or talk box) manner while the rhythm guitar part and Staley’s vocal both possess disarming and worrisome qualities which are impossible to deny or escape by the time the song reaches the sense of disillusionment (“what I see is unreal”) of the chorus. As was also true when the EP was first released, this remastered, re-issued presentation of “Rotten Apple” could best be characterized as feeling haunted – but but the greatest improvement made on this reissue is just how vivid the texture of the song is; even if it was escapable (it isn’t), listeners will be well and deeply hooked, here.

After “Rotten Apple” casts the spell, “Nutshell” ups the game further by reaching deeper into Alice In Chains’ emotional barrel. There, with a dry-eyed sense of reserve which simply never appeared in pop, rock or metal before, the band achieves a state of sadness and reflection that was previously reserved only for somber poets like John Keats, Robert Frost and Edgar Allen Poe (see lines like, “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”) and brings it all into a form that no one had done before – but would ultimately inspire an entire genre’s worth of superstars. Bands like Godsmack (who even cribbed their NAME from AIC) Deftones, Saliva, Staind and Disturbed all owe a creative debt to Alice In Chains but when they pick up acoustic guitars, the reason for that creative decision can be traced to the power exhibited in “Nutshell” and a desire to even come close to the quality presented. “Nutshell” remains a knee-buckling standard, set thirty years ago.

Following “Nutshell,” Jar Of Flies shifts gears and transitions into the most bombastic song in its running – which is somehow also its lightest. “I Stay Away” begins gently with a guitar figure that is melodic and folk-infused, and the vocal melody layered on top rings with all the color of classic rock, initially – but brows will furrow before long even if listeners are long familiar with the song. After that first classic build, Layne Staley’s vocal tone turns sardonic and almost wants to taunt listeners as lines like “Why you act crazy/ Not an act maybe/ So close a lady/ Shifty eyes shady” intone darkness and malaise before finally wringing the last drops of pain and distance out of the title lyric. The power of “I Stay Away” is spectacular and, upon exposure to it, ;listeners will have to work to catch their breath in preparation for “No Excuses,” which closes the side.

Within the context of this new, 30th anniversary reissue of Jar Of Flies, the sound and power of “No Excuses” simply cannot be overstated. Now, the quality of the song has never been cast into question – not for nothing was “No Excuses” the breakout single from the EP (particularly on radio) – but the song’s placement here coupled with how it sounds elevates it to a whole other level and, when the song ends and needle lifts, listeners will be left rushing to flip the record over in hopes of retaining the energy level left by “No Excuses.”

As strongly as the EP’s A-side ended, the B-side will have listeners wondering what the inspiration was for the B-side as “Whale and Wasp” opens the running with an instrumental which calls to mind a whine of pain – but doesn’t really go anywhere. Throughout each of AIC’s releases to the point that Jar Of Flies came out in the band’s chronology, Jerry Cantrell’s guitar always played a role that was capable of driving a song or infusing it with emotion – but that was always complimented by a vocal performance which could point listeners in one direction or another.Comparatively, “Whale and Wasp” is rudderless; the minor key in which the song is composed implies desperation but, with little in the way of drums to power the song along from Sean Kinney, that sense of desperation feels lost and confused too – so while the cut is only two and a half minutes long, it feels frightening and seems to play forever. That sensation lightens exponentially as “Don’t Follow” shifts to a major key and Cantrell’s arpeggios add some gentility to the play – and the harmonica which appears in the song adds a timeless quality that it’s possible to lose oneself in. There is no dark turn in the song too – which really pushes it into a warm and lush place similar to that which Alice Mudgarden went in “Right Turn” on Sap – except without Chris Cornell’s help. Unlike “Whale and Wasp,” “Don’t Follow”’s four minutes and twenty-two seconds fly past listeners and, when the song ends in almost exactly the same way it began, it leaves listeners in a much brighter place, emotionally – thereby implying that a resolution might just be on the way.

…And just when listeners think Alice In Chains may indeed end Jar Of Flies on the bright note with which “Don’t Follow” implied, “Swing On This” turns the screw just enough that listeners can see a bright resolution, but not quite receive one. Through the first verse, Alice In Chains uses the strengths which were already established elsewhere on Jar Of Flies – bright and brassy acoustic guitar from Jerry Cantrell, an excellent walking bass line from Mike Inez, tasteful and reserved drumming from Sean Kinney and a good vocal from Layne Staley (which feels like a nod to the singer’s beginnings as a hair metal singer). That first verse in “Swing On This” actually comes across as feeling like it might represent a brand new beginning for Alice In Chains – until the chorus drops into a minor key and dissonance overtakes the movement, making it feel sick and so exactly like an Alice In Chains song. As much as it is “exactly the kind of thing fans would expect from Alice In Chains” though, the bait about “Swing On This” is how intrinsically malevolent it feels as it plays and, when it ends, how dark it feels – even when the bandmembers can be heard laughing before the needle lifts. That last eerie turn is the thing that will keep listeners coming back to Jar Of Flies again and again; as far as the EP does get from what is the established norm for Alice In Chains, it still always feels like there’s a way back. For other records that the band would release after this one, that wouldn’t always be true – but that’s the brilliant thing about Jar Of Flies, and that’s why it continues to hold a special place in fans’ collective heart – made only warmer by this remastered reissue. [Bill Adams]


Further Reading:
Ground Control‘s Alice In Chains Discography Review
The Classics 040 – Alice In Chains – Dirt (reissue) 2LP
Vinyl Vlog 217 – Alice In Chains – Record Store Day 2×7’’ set
Vinyl Vlog 181 – Alice In Chains – Live Facelift EP

The 30th Anniversary vinyl reissue of Alice In Chains’ Jar Of Flies is out now. Buy it here, on the band’s official website.

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