How Alice in Chains Found the Most Memorable Voice in Grunge

Appreciating the vocal style of Layne Staley on the 10th anniversary of the singer's death

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Alice in Chains

The Seattle grunge scene that transformed rock in the '90s produced four great voices, but the most distinct among them belonged to Alice in Chains' Layne Staley. Nirvana's Kurt Cobain deeply understood musical dynamics and could simultaneously scream and sing a melody in a way that few others could—think of John Lennon's searing lead vocal performance on "Twist and Shout." Soundgarden's Chris Cornell wailed and hit high notes, putting him at times in Robert Plant or Freddie Mercury territory. Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder combined a Jim Morrison-style natural baritone range with other punk and rock influences.

But Staley sounded like no one else. His ability to project power and vulnerability in his vocals, as well as the unique and complementary harmonies he created when singing with Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell, made for a style that would get copied for years after Alice in Chains became a household name.

"I didn't want another Morrison or another Rob Halford," Bacolas says. "I don't know what we were looking for. We just kind of—we just found it."

When he died ten years ago today, the ensuing remembrances often centered on his voice. "He was single-handedly the guy that got me to start singing," Godsmack singer Sully Erna told MTV News at the time. "To this day, I've never really heard a cooler singer ... Just the way they [Staley and Cantrell] addressed their melodies and harmonies, and his vocal style in general was so different from anything that anyone was writing that it was so appealing and attractive that you couldn't help but be influenced by it."

"Layne had an amazing voice that had such a beautiful, sad, haunting quality about it," Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan said in a statement after Staley's death. "He was different because his heaviness was in that voice."

It was on Alice in Chains's sophomore album Dirt that Staley would develop what became his signature sound: heavily layering his vocals in the studio by recording two or three vocal tracks in multiple intervals. The technique, called stacked vocals, "was totally Layne," Alice in Chains producer Dave Jerden says. Staley hadn't discussed or explained in advance his idea for stacking his vocals to Jerden: "What he would say to me when we did that stuff is he had it all worked out, and he would just say 'Give me another track.' 'I want to double it.' 'Now let's triple it.' He was just telling me what he wanted to do, and we'd do it."

There was also an improvisational element to how he recorded. Dirt engineer Bryan Carlstrom remembers that when working on the song "Them Bones" with Staley, Staley told him, "Oh, I hear a little vocal part I want to stick in the song."

As he was hearing the music played back to him on his headphones, Staley began singing the "Ah!" screams timed to Cantrell's guitar riff. He tracked the screams once or twice.

"He just made that up on the spot," Carlstrom says. Cantrell is credited for the music and lyrics to the song, but it's difficult to imagine it without those screams.

Staley was also capable of innovating in his ability to use his voice as an instrument. "He sings on the verse on 'God Smack' with this effect that literally sounds like there's a tremolo [effect] or a Leslie [speaker] on his voice, and he is doing that with his voice," Carlstrom says. No studio wizardry was necessary. Carlstrom has no idea how he was doing it because the production staff had put up a makeshift wall made of soundproof material in the studio at Staley's request so he couldn't be seen from the outside while he was singing.

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David de Sola is a writer based in Washington, D.C.

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