James Hetfield on the timeless quality of Alice in Chains: “They were so unique”

Not every songwriter wants to make something that stands the test of time. Just ask the millions of rock stars who decided to go disco or everyone who got into dubstep in the 2010s, and they will probably tell you that they had no intention of making something that wasn’t of the moment when it was released. The real test of an artist is the passage of time, and James Hetfield always considered Alice in Chains up there with the all-time greats.

For many metalheads, Alice in Chains was only one in a long line of bands that ended metal’s golden age. Even though it’s commonly known that grunge was the death knell for hair metal, it wasn’t as kind to the thrash metal legends, either. Metallica and Megadeth may have gotten into the 1990s first, but once Nirvana got big, no one wanted to be a metal warlord again.

It didn’t seem like Metallica even wanted to be in their position anymore, either. If you look at where they want following the new wave of grunge, the band traded in their metal warrior chops for something a lot more downtempo on Load, making something much closer to hard rock for a group that literally has the word ‘metal’ in their name.

While Alice in Chains may have been treated as another alternative act, they were never afraid to show their metal chops. Their first headlining shows involved opening for Slayer, so it wasn’t out of the question for them to tune down or make something that Tony Iommi would approve of.

For Hetfield, this was the kind of director that was closer to where he saw Metallica going, telling Revolver, “I just love hearing those songs. Those songs are awesome and should be heard, you know? They were so unique. So ahead of their time. And out of all the Seattle stuff, that stuff is the most timeless.”

It’s easy to hear what Alice did the minute that you put on an album like Load. Besides already using a trademark Alice move by tuning down a half step on their guitars, Hetfield’s melodies also sound a lot closer to what Layne Staley would have sung in their prime, like the slow groove of ‘The House That Jack Built’ or the moody introspection on ‘Until It Sleeps’.

One thing that no amount of overdubs could copy was Staley’s ability to harmonise with Jerry Cantrell. The weirdly choir-like vocal delivery felt like a true one-of-a-kind, and as much as Hetfield may have tried it on ‘2X4’, it’s better to just let the band do what they do best rather than try to ape their style.

While the members of Alice in Chains became friends with Metallica, they had some fun with them, eventually writing an in-joke about their recent makeovers when they played MTV Unplugged. There may have still been friction between grunge and heavy metal throughout the 1990s, but it’s nice to know that Hetfield never had any bad blood with one of Seattle’s finest.

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