A deeper look at the grooves pressed into the Record Store Day Exclusive Release pressing of Alice In Chains’ Live Facelift 12” EP.
While readers may be familiar with parts of Alice In Chains’ new Black Friday/Record Store Day release, Live Facelift, it’s nearly guaranteed that they don’t know the whole thing. They may know some of the songs – like the performance of “It Ain’t Like That” because it was the song which was playing in the background as people got their hands stamped while walking into the band’s show in Cameron Crowe’s film Singles and the performance of “Bleed The Freak” found here but which also appeared on AIC’s Live compilation album, released in 2000 – but the other recordings included here from Alice In Chains’ show at the Moore Theater on December 22, 1990 will probably seem far less familiar, except to those people who were at that show.
It is for that reason Live Facelift is special and (for many) may make a great souvenir. This is, after all, a document from that period before Alice In Chains had locked down the sound which would have them shooting past the bulk of the alt-rock pack and occupy one of the most enduringly high positions in spite of the group’s own inner turmoil; they’re building to a peak here, and it’s easy to hear.
As soon as “It Ain’t Like That” burns its way in to open the set, many listeners will find themselves overcome by a sense of nostalgia as Jerry Cantrell’s turgid guitar riff scrapes the song into gear and Layne Staley’s simple bark of “Yeah!” gets the song moving. Right from that moment, listeners will know that while Alice In Chains had it in them to be an erratic live band, they were most definitely “on” the night of this show. Here, while Mike Starr’s bass sets a vibe of diseased menace and Sean Kinney’s drums set up a brilliant, strutting rhythm, the combination of Jerry Cantrell and Layne Staley at stage center proves it is already beginning to lock into something more than the crotch-grabbing metal that they had initially envisioned for the band as Cantrell’s guitar splits its time between grinding thuggishly and chiming darkly and Staley is already beginning to command the sick and surly presence that would win over millions on Dirt. Combined, the results are an embryonic version of the sound which managed to win millions of metalheads over to the alternative rock establishment and it’s still captivating – even twenty-five years after the show.
While “It Ain’t Like That” definitely has the power and the fisherman’s gaffe-sized hooks to catch and drag a lot of unsuspecting listeners along, all the rest WILL get caught as “Man In The Box” blasts out of the gate in follow-up without so much as a pause for breath between songs. Perhaps more than in any other song on this EP, “Man In The Box” offers definitive proof of just how good a live band Alice In Chains could be. Here, without the benefit of overdubs, Layne Staley shows listeners just how flexible, operatic and flat-out exhilarating his voice really was before the drugs began to rob him of it; through this performance, Staley snarls, screams and croons, and does it all as the stanza on his lyric sheet requires – it’s incredible. After that, the side closes with what is the weakest track on the album, “Real Thing.” See, what “Real Thing” really showcases is just how “B-level” and “Out-of-the-Eighties” Alice In Chains could sound in the early part of their career. While they would eventually learn to use different tempos and dynamic shifts in the service of cathartic movements within their music, they weren’t quite on top of that yet but they were moving in that direction. It’s actually possible to hear that development here – even in “Real Thing” – and it’s really cool for the right set of ears.
The B-side of Live Facelift effortlessly manages to exceed the point at which “Real Thing” left the A-side hanging. “Love Hate Love” opens the side at roughly the same tempo “Real Thing” closed the A- but, happily, the song features the best sense of mood-building that the band would achieve in its earliest years. Here, it’s impossible for listeners not to feel the emotional injury within Layne Staley when he screams “You told me I was the only one” partially like a spurned lover and partially like a rejected son and relate with him either way as the song plays out. It’s impossible to ignore the emotional injury in Staley’s voice and, while he’d later get much better at offering a contrast to those sentiments with his guitar, Cantrell’s performance here sustains those sentiments through the song’s duration and also manages to make a perfect relief for the sudden upswing in power and tempo which comes when “Bleed The Freak” swirls through at the terminus of the EP.
And when “Bleed The Freak” DOES close the side, listeners will find they’re left energized by the experience. The thing is that Alice In Chains took more time than most to mature as songwriters; when they finally got there (at either Sap or Jar Of Flies, depending on who you ask), they’d prove to only be stoppable by their own vices – but they got picked up early and would get to grow up both on stage and as the tape rolled in recording studios as a result.
Reading this review back, it might not be clear how good or not this EP is. The easiest way to look at it is like this: while Alice In Chains would still have plenty of development to do when they stepped onstage at the Moore right before Christmas in 1990, it’s perfectly obvious in listening here that the band was well on its way to where the going would get great in 1992 – and it was clearly a quick build because Facelift had only been released a few months before this show. It might sound a little unbelievable, but the proof is in the listening. Find a copy of Live Facelift at your favorite independent record store for all the proof you need, reader.
The Black Friday/Record Store Day pressing of Live Facelift was released on November 25, 2016 as an RSD Exclusive Release. It is limited to 5000 copies, so best of luck finding one!