And so, almost fifteen years after the concert took place, Alice In Chains’ seminal unplugged album returns on limited edition (just 500 copies) double red vinyl courtesy of What Records and Music On Vinyl. As with ‘Dirt’ it is an edition that raises the bar in terms of audio quality that can be expected from releases and it will undoubtedly prove to be a valuable addition to the AiC fan’s collection.
Alice in chains’ ‘unplugged’ performance maintains a very special place in many fan’s hearts because it proved, tragically, to be Layne Staley’s final appearance with the band. Much has been made, over the years, of Layne’s appearance at that gig, of the rumours and myths that surrounded the man at that time and so forth, but when listening to it on record none of that matters. What does matter is the performance itself and in that department Layne simply shone, as did the whole band. With the barest minimum of outside interference (unlike Korn who required an entire army of musicians to make their music palatable) AiC simply drafted in fellow Seattleite Scotty Olson to augment their material and worked to craft a set that contained much of their quieter material (drawing heavily from ‘jar of flies’ and ‘sap’) as well as a few surprises (who ever would have thought ‘sludge factory’ would work quite so well?).
The net result was far more electrifying than is generally credited. Layne’s voice remained as characteristic and powerful as ever – his performance on ‘down in hole’ in particular sending shivers down the spine, whilst the band’s fabled harmonies were undiminished. Moreover the band’s fabled sense of humour was firmly in place (although it is less evident on the audio recording than on the DVD due to edits) and you can feel that the love showered upon the band by the receptive audience (including Metallica who had turned up to show their support) was firmly reciprocated. So many highlights abound the ‘unplugged’ set – Sean’s mindboggling drum intro to ‘no excuses’, the latent menace of ‘frogs’, the confessional ‘angry chair’ (complete with Layne on guitar) and the stunning last-minute inclusion of ‘the killer is me’ are all showcases of everything that made Alice in Chains a truly special band to their followers – that it is simpler just to start at the beginning and finish at the end, missing nothing out and revelling once more in Jerry Cantrell’s warm acoustic tones.
It is to this end that this vinyl edition becomes essential. An audiophile release, Music On Vinyl have crafted the most sonically perfect version of the album yet released. The 180grm vinyl is strong enough and resilient enough to maintain its quality far longer than the old, shallow plastic platters and the mastering, reproduced on dense vinyl, allows all the warmth of the instruments to shine through. Just listening to the gentle opener ‘nutshell’ is enough to bring tears to the eyes, while the stripped down vocal harmony on verse three of ‘brother’ should have even the stoniest of heart wailing like a baby. Every note, every nuance is perfectly reproduced here and if you own a good turntable then you owe it to yourself to invest in this collector’s item without further delay.
As with ‘dirt’, however, I have some minor reservations. The sleeve, alas, is stripped bare, offering nothing in the way of extra photos or liner notes and at the very least it would have been preferable to have had it as a gatefold release. In these days of super-deluxe collector’s editions one can’t help but become spoiled and feel as if so special a set deserves greater attention to detail on the packaging. Nonetheless, for the music alone (and that is, after all, what we are here for) this gains a high mark as the sonic reproduction is flawless. Another feather in the fledgling label’s cap and another triumph for fans of the vinyl record.