Jerry Cantrell – ‘Brighten’ (2021) and a career in Retrospect …

Jerry Cantrell, without a doubt one of the finest songwriters in heavy rock music over the last 30 years, has just released his third solo record ‘Brighten’. The album is a 9 track journey from the soul of a mature and experienced 55 year old, with clear influences of Blues and Country music, overshadowing the unique dark heavy and brooding songs he has made his name writing and performing over the last 3 decades. Featuring the most accessible contemporary rock that he’s produced during an esteemed career which has spanned a generation, Cantrell appears to have used the album as an alternative more soulful outlet, compared to the music being released through his day job, the phenomenally successful Alice in Chains.

Exploding in the early 90’s Seattle movement, AIC landed a major record deal (with Colombia) just ahead of the likes of contemporaries Soundgarden, Pearl Jam & Nirvana, and scored a huge MTV hit with their breakout single ‘Man In A Box’, from their 1990 debut album ‘Facelift’. Fronted by the charismatic, but ultimately flawed genius Layne Staley (RIP), the band offered a fresh sound that appealed to different fractions of the Rock and Metal community. Jerry Cantrell crafted the majority of the songs, providing exquisite guitar leads while singing backing vocals, creating beautiful harmonies with Staley which combined to create a uniqueness all of their own. Although they were somewhat lumped into the ‘Grunge’ category of music that came with many rock bands emerging from the Northwest American scene at the time, AIC were so much more musically, and had an undeniable originality that couldn’t really be pigeonholed.

They found success quickly and both the band and their label were keen to continue the momentum. Their follow up album ‘Dirt’ arrived in 1992, and is an all time classic record, a dark and moody collection of amazing songs, lyrically dealing with the bands descent into hard drug use, and musically providing Cantrell with the platform to produce a masterpiece. Songs such as ‘Down In A Hole’, ‘Would?’, ‘Them Bones’ and ‘Angry Chair’ are considered among the bands very finest work, and intense touring followed, seeing AIC play concerts with the likes of Ozzy Osbourne and Metallica.

Alice In Chains created one further much beloved self titled album with Layne Staley in 1995, before serious cracks started to form. In particular Staley’s Heroin use was starting to become a major obstacle in the bands ability to tour, and ultimately function to the level that their success had taken them. Their swan-song came with the release (in 1996) of a one off performance for MTV’s Unplugged series. A brooding collection of their finest work from ‘Dirt’, their other 2 LP’s, and songs from their EP’s ‘Sap’ and ‘Jar Of Flies’, which had largely been acoustic driven, with each being released in between their albums as an outlet for their softer music, showing early the tremendous range that Cantrell and his band mates possessed. The ‘Unplugged’ concert showcased the exquisite connection that Cantrell and Staley had together, their vocal harmonies flowing from one to the other perfectly throughout the set. But sadly, it would be one of their final performances together.

As Staley descended deeper into a private life of solitude away from music, Jerry Cantrell continued to write songs, no doubt hoping that one day Alice In Chains would come together again, pick up where they left off and record a new album. But as time went on, it became apparent their frontman was not going to be writing or performing music with the band again, and Cantrell reluctantly pressed on without his muse, releasing his first solo album ‘Boggy Depot’ in 1998.

Unsurprisingly the album largely carried on from the feel and sound of AIC’s last album, albeit with a more melodic and southern rock feel, allowing Cantrell to flex his vocal chords as the sole lead vocalist for the first time in his career. The album features some great songs inc ‘Cut You In’, ‘Dickeye’ and ‘My Song’, with many ideas dating back to the final AIC record. The collection features guest appearances from the likes of Pantera’s Rex Brown, Les Claypool from Primus, as well as AIC bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney, going some way to whet the appetite of fans still hopeful of a reunion.

However following the release of the album, Cantrell’s own drug use started to spiral out of control as he came to terms with the demise of the band, and the alienation of his friend. For the best part of half a year he locked himself away in virtual solitude and wrote in excess of 30 songs, with a heaviness and bleak tone that was more similar to ‘Dirt’ than anything else he’s written before or since. Eventually the collection was released as a double album in 2002, which sadly was the same year that Layne Staley finally succumbed to his illness, and died from a drug overdose.

‘Degradation Trip’ features some of Cantrell’s finest compositions and it’s easy to hear that many of the ideas had come from a place of darkness. Jerry turned the distortion back up on his guitar, with songs such as ‘Psychotic Break’, ‘Bargain Basement Howard Jones’ and ‘Mothers Spinning in Her Grave’. You can hear how Layne Staley’s soulful croon would have weaved its magic throughout these compositions, but vocally Cantrell sounded more in control than ever before. A darkness even foreshadowed the lighter moments, such as on ‘Angel Eyes’ and ‘Solitude’, where Cantrell’s recognisable acoustic strumming takes centre stage. It seemed that with this release Cantrell had bared his soul, finally making his peace with the ending of Alice in Chains, as the world had come to know it. However with the passing of Layne Staley, it would appear that the band was far from finished after all.

As time started to heal and the dust began to settle following his friends death, Jerry and his remaining AIC band mates agreed to reunite in 2005 and perform at a special Tsunami benefit concert in Seattle, which they did with a number of guest vocalists inc Ann Wilson from Heart and Maynard James Keenan from Tool. With the reunion show a success, further offers of performances followed with guests joining the band onstage such as Pantera’s Phil Anselmo, Metallica’s James Hetfield, Duff McKagan from Guns N Roses and William Duvall, a relatively unknown vocalist and guitar player from Comes With The Fall.

Comes With The Fall had supported and played as Cantrell’s backing band as he toured the material of ‘Degradation Trip’ in 2001 -2002, and a deep friendship had formed with DuVall. In the following years when the reunion shows of Alice in Chains started to gain traction, the band decided they once again wanted to continue as a full time outfit. It became apparent that they would need a new member to join and take the place of Layne Staley, and William Duvall seemed like the natural choice.

In 2006 AIC were a full time band again, keen to continue their earlier success, while also honouring the legacy of Layne Staley. DuVall slid naturally into the role of vocalist, while also providing the band with a strong 2nd guitar player. Without wanting to alienate fans of Staley or disregard his memory, AIC slowly embarked on introducing the new line up via carefully selected shows and appearances, writing new material in the background, which they began to demo in 2007.

Then in September 2009 (signed to Virgin/EMI), their new album ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’ was finally presented to the world. Cantrell and DuVall shared vocal duties and guitar playing throughout the record, which instantly sounded like a classic Alice In Chains release. Superb tracks such as the Grammy nominated ‘Check My Brain’, and ‘Your Decision’ were well received, and the album was very much a tribute to Staley, with themes of darkness and light throughout, none more so than on the title track featuring a guest appearance on piano from Sir Elton John. AIC drummer Sean Kinney was asked whether Layne Staley would have been pissed off with his band mates reinventing themselves and continuing without him. He simply replied … ‘He’d have been pissed off we didn’t do it sooner’.

In 2010 a hugely successful triple headline tour was undertaken across America with Deftones and Mastodon. The ‘Blackdiamondskye’ tour was the hottest ticket in town and further cemented the success of the new era of Alice In Chains. However in 2011 further tragedy struck the band as original bassist Mike Starr (replaced by current player Mike Inez, who was hijacked from Ozzy Osborne’s band in 1994) passed away at the age of 44, following ingesting a cocktail of Methodone and Anti-Depressants. The second death from the original lineup may well have helped contribute to the dark tone that would feature on their next album ‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here’, which was largely written in the same year and released in May 2013 … further extensive touring followed.

In August 2018 AIC’s latest album ‘Rainer Fog’ was released to critical acclaim, featuring some of the finest music of their new era, with tracks like ‘So Far Under’, ‘Never Fade’ and ‘All I Am’ sounding and feeling like classic Alice In Chains. The subsequent touring took the band towards the end of 2019, and a much needed break following a near non stop 15 year revival. With William Duvall heading off to work on his own solo projects, Cantrell announced in Jan 2020 (and just prior to the COVID pandemic), that he had started writing for his 3rd solo project … and some 20 months later ‘Brighten’ has finally arrived.

As with many musicians, Cantrell seems to have found that the pandemic forced lack of touring opportunities in 2020 and 2021, has provided the elongated opportunity to write and spend time working in the studio. Providing the ability to take longer to perfect the sound of the album, without the pressure of having to work to a tight schedule. Cantrell certainly seems to have taken his time with this record, finishing the final mix a full year after he started, and drip feeding singles including ‘Atone’, alongside a carefully planned pre-release marketing campaign, in order to build interest.

Pulling in friends to work with him, the album (among others) features Duff McKagan on bass guitar, Gil Sharone (Team Sleep) on drums, and backing vocals from Greg Puciato (The Dillinger Escape Plan / Killer Be Killed / The Black Queen). Cantrell has produced the album with renowned film composer Tyler Bates (also an ex guitar player with Marilyn Manson), and having played a handful of gigs to support the release, will no doubt be taking the music out on the road in 2022, hopefully then turning his attention back to whatever comes next with Alice in Chains. Jerry may consider himself lucky to have carved out a lifelong career doing what he loves, but ultimately the lucky ones are the consumers of his music … and long may he continue to provide his art for us all.


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