Albums Revisited: Alice in Chains’ ‘Sap’ Turns 25: Seattle Grunge stars acoustic EP remains one of their most satisfying efforts.
February 4th marks the 25th anniversary of Sap, Alice in Chains 5 song EP, which filled the gap between 1990’s Facelift and their 1992 full-length epic Dirt. And while Sap didn’t get the same attention and acclaim of their 1994 acoustic album Jar of Flies, it’s their superior unplugged effort.
Sap (produced Rick Parashar) would see Alice collaborate with fellow Seattle grunge luminaries (Chris Cornell, Mark Arm), as well as a hometown classic rock icon (Anne Wilson of Heart).
Wilson soars on the opening track Brother, cascading over the dual harmonies of late frontman Layne Staley and guitarist/co-vocalist Jerry Cantrell. The simmering tune features lyrics inspired by Cantrell’s rocky relationship with his sibling after their parents divorced.
Wilson is also featured with Staley on the haunting Am I Inside, with both singers harmonizing over an eerie, minor key guitar figure and plaintive piano, featuring the none-more-gloomy-Gen-X chorus: “Black is how I feel, so this is how it feels to be free.”
Right Turn saw the short-lived supergroup Alice Mudgarden, a humorously named amalgamation of Staley, Cantrell, Cornell and Arm’s respective groups. And the song is one of the most dynamic musical snapshots of the early 90’s grunge scene. Trading vocal lines at first, the song ends in a collision of vocal harmonies, with Staley’s guttural wail and Cornell’s stratospheric caterwauling duking it out for top spot.
With only 5 songs, Sap doesn’t have one dud, unless you count the goofy hidden track Love Song, which is an atonal mess with Kinney screaming “Rae Dawn Chong” over and over again. It’s good for a chuckle. I still wonder to this day if the actress is aware of this strange homage.
Sap didn’t get much promotion, with Cantrell saying it was released “without any fuss or fanfare so as the real Alice fans could find it.” But with the blast-off success of Nirvana’s Nevermind, it still managed to go gold. The EP would get even more exposure when it was re-released in 1995, after Got Me Wrong was used on the soundtrack to Kevin Smith’s Clerks.
When I think of Sap, I’m instantly transported back to college. Where seemingly everyone on my dorm floor was into any number of cool alternative bands and we were in an endless game of dubbing tapes off each other’s CD’s. Discovering Sap was one such experience. I think I gained a handful of friends simply due to our love of Alice in Chains alone.
It’s the EP’s simple purity that proved Alice didn’t need mountains of distortion to showcase their power. Their songs were solid, their arrangements clever yet unfussy, with Staley and Cantrell’s vocals always remaining the focal point. It’s also worth noting the memorable bass lines of the late Mike Starr (hard to believe this band has lost two musicians). He was an undervalued player. Sap still holds up 25 years later.
Am I Inside still gives me the chills. Its sense of doomed isolation hanging over Staley like a curse. Lines like Surrounded by empty souls, artificial courage used shows the frailty behind his cavernous vocal presence. Goddammit he was such a great singer. He tapped into pain, abstract longing, addiction and spiritual uplift all at once. Sap is a testament to his inimitable presence.
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