Alice In Chains was on top of the world in 1993, or so they thought. Behind the success of 1992’s Rock chart-topping Dirt (Columbia) album, the band toured the world, played Lollapalooza, had songs on major movie soundtracks and more. But there were some issues arising in their camp that would shape their immediate future. The bands came off a raucous summer of touring in 1993 to find themselves evicted from their communal house in Seattle. The band had recently fired bassist Mike Starr (RIP)who co-founded the band. After recruiting bassist Mike Inez (Ozzy Osbourne) the band had toured some with him, and recorded a few of those soundtrack pieces with him, but nothing more/ The band moved into London Bridge Studios, where countless huge rock and metal albums were made, and AIC had created all of their albums at that point. The band was going to spend a few days just jamming with acoustic guitars and see what stuck. What they came up with was so much more. When they finished writing, they had the bones of their epic EP Jar of Flies (Columbia) in the can.
The band was no stranger to going “unplugged’ popular at the time thanks to MTV. Their Sap EP (also Columbia)) has some great songs on it, especially ‘Right Turn’, with Chris Cornell and Mark Arm adding vocals, and Ann Wilson of Heart on ‘Brother’ and ”Am I Inside’. Jar of Flies is not fully unplugged, but it is overall a more chilled out listening experience. Channeling Jerry Cantrell’s influences from Led Zeppelin, to Neil Young and even Country music, the band experimented with new flavors in their sound, while keeping the doom and gloom heaviness in more subtle ways.
The EP opens with the sinister ‘Rotten Apple’. The track begins with an incredible ostinato bass line by Inez and a combo wah pedal, talk-box effect from Cantrell, that calls back to ‘Man In The Box’. Cantrell and Layne Staley’s evil harmony vocals have an almost chant-like effect. The intro parts flow back in after each chorus. Inez and Sean Kinney swing such a tight, but relaxed groove the entire song. The outro extended solo is also restrained, bluesy and great.
Second track ‘Nutshell’ is the masterpiece of the EP and maybe one of the best songs the band ever made. With a few simple chords and some soul-bearing lyrics, Jerry’s ode to depression is amazing. Like a modern ‘Wish You Were Here’ by Pink Floyd, few songs encompass hopelessness, and sum up the feeling of the futility of life better than this. Layne Staley’s solo vocals on the track are a tour de force.
“I Stay Away” was one of the albums Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tracks. At first, it sounds earnest and delightful and then in the pre-chorus flips to the sinister side. Amazing vocal harmonies, layers of guitar licks (there’s that wah pedal again) and even a string quartet! The band was pushing their boundaries as writers and creators, and not holding anything back. The claymation video for the track, directed by Nick Donkin was a hit on MTV, played around the clock, not just on rock blocks and Headbanger’s Ball.
By comparison to most of their material, ‘No Excuses’ is practically a sunny, happy song. It was an interesting choice as the leadoff single for the album. Of course, it’s a little on the doleful side but with Kinney’s inventive beat and another slick solo by Jerry, it’s a winner. The band still plays this song live on tour today. Instrumental ‘Whale and Wasp’ was a piece of music Cantrell had lying around for years.
Folk song ‘Don’t Follow’ was another more typical acoustic song for the band, although t features more great singing and a neat harmonica solo from David Atkinson. Final track ‘Swing On This’ answers the question of what AIC would sound like as Jazz band? It would work, especially Sean Kinney.
For an album that was just an exercise to blow off steam, the album was a real surprise to fans. It debuted at number one on the chats, the first EP in history to earn such an honor. The packaging, featuring plastic flies in the CD spine and photography from Rockey Schenck was amazing. The sound of the album was also tight for the time, produced by the band and engineered and mixed by their frequent collaborator Toby Wright. Jar of Flies is a great chapter in the AIC story is still a much-loved part of the catalog.