Considering the hard, serrated edges of Alice in Chains’ first two albums, it came as a surprise when the band opted for an understated, semi-acoustic tack on 1994’s Jar of Flies EP. Even more surprising were the subtle dynamics and pensive singer/songwriter airs stirred up by the band’s slowing down and stripping back. With this live set recorded for MTV, Alice in Chains take their acoustic experimentation to its inevitable, logical conclusion — an Unplugged album.
Some of the performances here hardly vary at all from the original studio versions. “No Excuses,” from Jar of Flies, simmers at a perkier tempo, with more piquant percussion; “Heaven Beside You” is marginally more folky in tone. It’s in the older material that the real changes go down. The turbulent “Rooster” unwinds with a melancholy elegance. The brooding “Would?” is softened with long stretches of smoldering gloom.
Bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney maintain the drama and intensity but at half the volume, leaving more space for Layne Staley’s vocal nuances. In “Sludge Factory,” there’s something almost whimsical about the way Staley murmurs his way through the lyrics, then wails both halves of the call-and-response break. Guitarist Jerry Cantrell also makes good use of the flexing room, showcasing the bluesier, trippier facets of his playing.
Unplugged certainly reaffirms the emotional range and technical prowess of Alice in Chains. But it lacks electricity in more ways than one. The concentrated catharsis in Alice in Chains’ music is still best heard with the amps cranked up to 11.