Alice In Chains had something that other grunge bands didn’t – transcendent two-part harmonies. While aggression, depression, and flannel were worth their respective eights in gold during the early 1990s, precise vocal arrangements most assuredly weren’t. That’s not to say there weren’t great singers: Chris Cornell was the grunge equivalent of Robert Plant, while Eddie Vedder solidified the growly and easily parodied signature sound of grunge vocals for the masses.
But Alice In Chains were different. No matter how scuzzy a particular song was, and no matter how dirty they got in the process, Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell could always be counted on to add lovely vocal counterpoint to each and every Alice In Chains arrangement. They were pristine, as if a beam of light was shining directly down on the decrepit underground that the band seemed to occupy.
Part of it had to do with Staley and Cantrell’s similar voices. On tracks like ‘Would?’ and ‘Down in a Hole’, the pair could trade vocal lines and come back together to sing duet parts without a clear distinction of who was taking lead over who. If you weren’t looking directly at them while they were performing, it could be difficult to discern who was singing at any given time.
That kind of shared presence is actually only briefly included in one of the band’s biggest songs, ‘Rooster’. The wordless opening vocal lines are equal parts heavenly and haunting, perfectly setting the tone for the entire song. From there, Staley takes the lead on a first-person trek through the hell of war and the confusion of coming back alive while your friends died in the dirt.
Cantrell rejoins Staley to belt out the song’s iconic chorus section. The pair’s otherworldly chemistry is on full display as their voices layer perfectly on top of each other. Instead of matching Staley’s vocal line note for note, Cantrell’s harmony actually explores its own sonic space, occasionally dipping down when Staley ascends to add more dynamics to the song’s arrangement. ‘Rooster’ would be one of the final classic Staley-Cantrell duets – after 1995’s Alice In Chains, Staley permanently resigned himself to drug addiction until his untimely death in 2002.
Check out the isolated vocals on ‘Rooster’ down below.