A metal band with an alternative-rock edge, Alice in Chains was among the biggest to emerge from the grunge scene that spawned Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden. The group's dark, bitter songs, laden with references to drug addiction and death, occupy a musical landscape somewhere between Metallica's dense head bangers and Pearl Jam's grinding anthems. Layne Staley formed Alice in Chains with an earlier lineup while still in high school. In 1987 he met Jerry Cantrell at the Music Bank, a notorious Seattle warehouse rehearsal space, and the two put together the newly christened Alice in Chains along with Cantrell cohorts Kinney and Starr. By 1989 the group had signed to Columbia Records, where it became the beneficiary of an aggressive promotion campaign that saw the release of a five-song promotional EP, We Die Young, and had the group opening for a range of disparate acts, including Iggy Pop and Poison. As a result, by September 1991, Face Lift (#42) had sold a half-million copies and featured the Grammy-nominated "Man in the Box." A low-key and mostly acoustic EP, Sap, and a track in the Seattle youth culture movie Singles kept the band in the public eye between albums.
The group's thematically bleaker sophomore effort, Dirt (#6), went platinum in 1992 (eventually selling 3 million copies), and the group's appearance on the following summer's Lollapalooza Tour confirmed its popularity. Reports of drug abuse, however, had begun to plague Staley and the band; a couple of songs from Dirt —"Junkhead" and "Angry Chair" —had hinted at mental fatigue and self-destruction. Yet Alice in Chains' success was at an all-time high: In late 1993 Dirt went double-platinum, and the following year the acoustic Jar of Flies rocketed to #1, the first EP to ever top the Billboard album chart. In 1994 Staley hooked up with fellow Seattleites Mike McCready (Pearl Jam), Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees), and John Baker Saunders to play a few gigs under the name Gacy Bunch; the next year they changed their name to Mad Season and released Above (#24, 1995), but Staley quit the side project (replaced by Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees) before its second album.
In 1995 Alice in Chains returned to action with a self-titled album (which debuted at #1), but the quartet failed to tour, owing to internal discord and rumored addictions. Even so, the band reconvened in 1996 for its first public performance in three years to record and release MTV Unplugged (#3), which stripped the band's hard-rock sound to an acoustic, unexpectedly melodic core. Nothing new was heard from Alice in Chains until the 1999 release of Music Bank (and the excerpted Nothing Safe —Best of the Box). Named for the warehouse where the band lived and recorded in its early days, the album was a 48-song collection that mixed two new tracks ("Get Born Again" and "Died") with the band's hits, live recordings, demos, and B sides. Another anthology of sorts, Live documented performances from throughout the band's career.
On April 20, 2002, Layne Staley's body was found in his Seattle apartment fifteen days after the lead singer died from an overdose of cocaine and heroin.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).