Thursday, August 18, 2011

Alice in Chains - Sap (1992)

Two years after Alice in Chains debuted with Facelift, grunge had taken over. Nirvana’s Nevermind sat at the top of the Billboard 200, and more attention was being paid to Seattle’s music scene than ever before. So, instead of following up with another full length to capitalize on the craze, Alice in Chains recorded a quick four-song EP of lighter fare, and titled it Sap. Released in the early part of 1992, it serves as a pleasant appetizer for the juggernaut that was to be unleashed that September. But that will have to wait. Sap begins a trend (albeit a brief one, brief as the first half of the band’s career) of alternating between full-length albums chock-full of sludgy riffs, and shorter EPs airing more on the acoustic side of things. Does the lack of crushing riffs meant to drag you into the pit Staley chose to occupy himself with make it any less good? Hardly. For the hardcore collector, Sap is a sweet addition to anyone’s collection.

Sap is an anomaly in that it is the only Alice in Chains album to feature guest vocals. Ann Wilson (Heart), Mark Arm (Mudhoney) and (be still my beating heart) Chris Cornell of Soundgarden fame all make appearances here, and their contributions are appreciated. Wilson in particular adds a certain beauty to the proceedings on “Brother”, an ode to guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s younger sibling. “Got Me Wrong” is the “heaviest” song on the album, with a heavy stomp accenting the acoustic guitar courtesy of Sean Kinney and Mike Starr. The chorus dirties things up a little with Cantrell turning the gain up a notch, but this is nothing that hasn’t been surpassed before or after in the band’s career. Things take a turn for the interesting on the third track, “Right Turn”. Officially credited to “Alice Mudgarden” (a juxtaposition of the contributing member’s band names), the song is an excellent display of some of the excellent vocal talent coming out of the Seattle scene. Chris Cornell in particular stuns and amazes, but I should probably save any gushing over his formidable singing ability for a Soundgarden discography review. Harmonies abound, further explored and developed from the band's debut. Haunting and at the same time beautiful, this song is a personal highlight for me. That is not to say that the final offering, “Am I Inside” (the only song to feature a Layne Staley writing credit) is something to laugh at. This song features some of the eeriest, darkest music I’ve heard AiC produce across their entire career. Ann Wilson lending her talents again doesn’t hurt too much either.

I lied when I mentioned “Am I Inside” to be the final track on this EP, as there is a hidden fifth track, titled “Love Song”. I fail to mention it because… well… it’s kind of a joke. It features a piano waltzing along as (I assume) the band members yodel and make fart noises, and then it launches into a frenzied drum-bashing craze of obnoxious guitar sounds and voice samples from something I don’t recognize. Anyways, it does nothing but annoy me so I choose to ignore it. And since it doesn’t show up on the track listing on the album, I can imagine the band didn’t intend for anyone to think much of it either. So really, what we have here is four brilliantly nuanced acoustic tracks giving us an even deeper look into the musical and lyrical abilities of this gem of a band. Would I recommend it to the casual listener? No. But to anybody who’s looking to really get into AiC, I would definitely suggest picking it up. It’s not the best of their acoustic EPs, but it is a unique experience, one that shows AiC is more than capable of making you sway to the sound of an acoustic as well as thrash to some grungy riffs.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (So unsure you reach for something strong)

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