Throwback Thursday — Man in the Box | Alice in Chains (1990)


George Pham

Much of the 1990’s heavy metal and alternative rock scene can be summed up in two words: nihilism and drugs. Abrasive industrial metal titans Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, as well as sludge metal pioneers Acid Bath, Melvins and Eyehategod, reflected the moody, grimy attitude that permeated the 90’s. But neither of those genres perhaps captured the zeitgeist better (or rather brought it to mainstream attention) than the almighty grunge. The likes of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots and the revered Nirvana established grunge not only as a force in music but as a definitive subculture.

I have not mentioned a certain band that also belongs within the grunge label because, although it has been categorized in the same division as those other bands I have mentioned, it is a sonic pariah. That band is, of course, Alice in Chains. They consistently forfeited a “poppier” more accessible sound for eerie, vexing, and at times haunting melodies that would come to establish them in a genre of their own.

This Thursday we will be visiting Alice in Chain’s hit single “Man in the Box” from their debut double platinum selling album Facelift. Right away the listener is hit with Jerry Cantrell’s quirky palm muted guitar riff, followed by Layne Staley’s iconic opening vocal melody harmonizing with the effects-laden guitar. This catchy, if not unconventional sound would blast Alice in Chains into superstardom. A satisfying guitar solo serves as a nice break at the tail end of the song. Lyrics such as “Feed my eyes, can you sew them shut?” and “Jesus Christ, deny your maker,” uphold the feeling of nonconformity and desire for freedom that Grunge advocates. Layne Staley was interviewed by Rolling Stone magazine about his lyrics stating that while out with some friends who were vegetarian, he found out that veal was made from calves confined into boxes, an image that stuck with him. This influenced the overarching theme of the song: censorship. How the government is able to put you in a box by feeding you ideas and perceptions of the world right into your own home.; Jerry stated, “It’s about breaking out of that box and looking outside of that box that has been built for you.”

Alice in Chains saw much turbulence in the middle of their lifespan as their frontman Layne Staley battled with addiction until his harrowing death, wherein he overdosed speedballing heroin and cocaine. The legacy Layne left for us is one of a band that was heavier, dirtier and dare I say it grungier than any of its contemporaries.

Featured Image Credit: Al Seib