Album Review : Alice in Chains - Sap (1992)
What makes Alice in Chains such a particular heavy metal band is the country/folk influences that permeates through their music. Of course, they released the very successful Jar of Flies in 1994, which was the first EP to ever debut at no.1 on Billboard 200 sales chart. But Jerry Cantrell, Layne Staley, Mike Inez and Sean Kinney didn’t just decide to record a folk rock EP out of the blue after Dirt. The influences were already there on songs like Sunshine, Down in a Hole, Hate to Feel… and also on a strange little EP called Sap, which they quietly released eight months before the iconic Dirt. Not all fans know about this one.
The opener on Sap is an eerie acoustic ballad called Brother, which features Ann Wilson from the band Heart. It’s a beautiful song that’s full of ghosts and regrets. These feelings are shrewdly amplified by the use of echo and reverb, which accentuates the aura of loneliness it exudes. Jerry Cantrell wrote it for his actual brother, who grew up away from him after his parents’ divorce and gives free reign to his melancholy. It’s a powerful song. Its simplicity and spontaneity are 100% folk rock, but it has this eerie, haunted feeling of an Alice in Chains song.
So, Brother is memorable, but the follow-up Got Me Wrong is super strange and out of character for Alice in Chains. It’s a semi-acoustic alternative rock song about a dysfunctional relationship where the narrator feels desire for his partner instead of love. The instrumentation on this song is radio-friendly and forgettable. It features Mike Starr’s trademark downtuned, saturated bass, but otherwise it’s difficult to differentiate from other radio hits from the nineties. The corny electric guitar chord hitting right when the chorus hits are particularly grating. It’s one of my least favorite Alice in Chains songs.
The showstopper on this EP though is a song called Right Turn, which features my guy Chris Cornell and Mudhoney’s Mark Arm. It’s the simplest song on the record: three iconic voices and an acoustic guitar, like it was recorded at a bonfire. The chemistry and the emotion on that song is cristalline. It’s just about the broken relationship discussed on that song. There’s the inherent pleasure of friends performing together that can be felt.The closing song Am I Inside is oddly positioned in the track listing because it can’t possibly live up to Right Turn. It’s a super depressive song * that breaks the eerie netherworld mood already established. It’s not bad, but it would’ve lived better elsewhere.
Sap is 50% great and 50% of a head-scratcher. I believe the good outweighs the bad because the Brother and Right Turn should be part of Alice in Chains’ broader legacy and Got Me Wrong and Am I Inside are merely forgettable. It’s a weird listen, like hearing your dark and mysterious friend from high school discussing his emotions in the most earnest and wholesome way he’s capable of. I’m convinced Sap was written because there were topics Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell couldn’t get to via heavy metal, so I’m happy that it exists, but it is in every possible way a rehearsal for Jar of Flies. It doesn’t really hold a candle to their folk rock masterpiece.
* The only song Layne Staley wrote on the EP.