Heaven Beside You: Did Alice in Chains’ self-titled album break up the band?

It has long been assumed that the eponymous 1995 album by Alice in Chains caused the Layne Staley-fronted version of the band to split – but is that assertion correct? For the project, the band came together personally and musically for the recording after a brief time apart, with each member hitting their creative stride despite the increasing prominence of heroin in their lives.

It is well known that after the band released their acclaimed 1994 EP Jar of Flies, Staley entered rehab for heroin addiction. However, despite addiction taking over his life and impeding his ability to fulfil commitments, Staley still pulled it out of the bag on Alice in Chains. Lyrically and performance-wise, Staley is at the top of his game. In what is a tragically well-trodden arc in music history, it would be the musician’s heroin addiction that caused the end of his time with Alice in Chains – and not any other rumoured reasons that circulated years later.

Notably, when Staley overdosed in Kansas City after a show supporting Kiss in July 1996, he was rushed to hospital. This became his final live performance. The band felt compelled to go on a lengthy hiatus after the incident, and Staley was never able to overcome his addiction. Remarkably, this ending was not the first time heroin had affected the band’s trajectory. Staley entered rehab for his addiction after Jar of Flies was completed, with the quartet forced to pull out of their summer 1994 tour with Metallica, Suicidal Tendencies, Danzig and Fight only a day before it was due to commence. Following this, they went on hiatus, with Staley joining the grunge supergroup Mad Season alongside Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin, and bassist John Baker Saunders during his time away.

With Staley sidelined, guitarist and vocalist Jerry Cantrell used the time to work on material for a solo album. In January 1995, he teamed up with Alice in Chains bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney to jam the new music. Then, in the spring, Staley was invited back into the fold. He later looked back on the personal grief that the hiatus had caused for the quartet: “We started to split apart and went different ways, and we felt like we were betraying each other.”

By April 1995, the band had checked into Seattle’s Bad Animals Studio with producer Toby Wright, the producer of Slayer’s Divine Intervention. Only a few of the album’s tracks had been completed before these sessions, so Alice in Chains used Cantrell’s solo material as a launch pad.

The band then gave Staley the demo tapes so he could pen his lyrics, and things wrapped up quickly, finishing it in August 1995. Speaking of the challenge of recording the album as well as the brilliance of being reunited, Cantell told Rolling Stone in 1996: “It was often depressing, and getting it done felt like pulling hair out, but it was the fucking coolest thing, and I’m glad to have gone through it. I will cherish the memory forever”.

The recording sessions and being back with his old friends also greatly impacted Staley, who added that he would treasure the memory too. He said: “I’ll cherish it forever, too, just because this one I can remember doing.”

Cantrell explained Alice in Chains in an interview around the time of release: “This record was just a culmination of, you know, a lot of time thinking. Thinking, doing things on our own, and getting back together and realising that it’s just as good, if not better, than it ever was, you know, musically. Yeah, it’s cool. And this record also is a record of itself. There’s like a tonne of stuff that, you know, a lot of lyrical shit that, where stuff happened daily, just creeped their way into the songs. A lyric on that first song, ‘Grind’ kind of sets the tone for the record. It’s like, ‘Don’t fucking count me out mother fucker until I’m out ‘coz I’ll get up and kick your ass when you’re least expecting it.’”

Despite the album reuniting the band, the challenges recording the project were primarily due to Staley’s heroin addiction, which was now severe. In a gloomy foreshadowing of the tragedy that lay in wait in 2002, he was often late for rehearsal and recording sessions. Everyone involved with the band noticed this decline, with their manager, Susan Silver, describing it as “a really painful session because it took so long.” Detailing further, she added: “To be in a meeting with him and have him fall asleep in front of you was gut-wrenching.”

Although Staley’s heroin addiction reached a new level around this time, all the lyrics on Alice in Chains are written by him apart from ‘Grind’, ‘Heaven Beside You’ and ‘Over Now’. Reflecting on the work, he said of the inspiration for his lyrics: “I just wrote down whatever was on my mind…so a lot of the lyrics are really loose. If you asked me to sing the lyrics to probably any one of them right now, I couldn’t do it. I’m not sure what they are because they’re still that fresh.”

Of this new tact, Staley continued: “For a long time, I let problems and sour relationships rule over me instead of letting the water roll off my back…I thought it was cool that I could write such dark, depressing music. But then, instead of being therapeutic, it was starting to drag on and keep hurting. This time I just felt, ‘Fuck it. I can write good music, and if I feel easy and I feel like laughing, I can laugh.’ There’s no huge, deep message in any of the songs. It was just what was going on in my head right then. We had good times, and we had bad times. We recorded a few months of being human.”

So, no, Alice in Chains did not split up the band. The record proved to be a brilliant last hurrah by the Layne Staley-fronted outfit and, by extension, the final chapter in their best period. As is known, Staley’s addiction continued, and after that frightening moment in Kansas City in 1996, they shut the whole thing down, however unofficially. They resumed proceedings with new frontman William DuVall in 2006 because Staley tragically lost his life to an overdose in 2002.

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