by James Conway
A classic album we think you should hear.
When the grunge phenomenon exploded forth from rainy Seattle in the early 90’s, the world of music sat up, rubbed its eyes vigorously and suddenly became interesting again, bolstered by the shot in the arm that these scruffy suburban layabouts with their fuzzy guitar riffs and plaid shirts had administered. Grunge was music that spoke to the disaffected youth of America. Weaned on a diet of MTV and becoming steadily more nauseous from a feast of lipstick-smeared buffoons such as Motley Crue and Twisted Sister, the youth of the nation were crying out for something with meaning, something that was all about the substance rather than the style. Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden may have won the hearts and minds, but there was another group, namely Alice In Chains, going about their business in a quiet, methodical fashion.
In 1992 the band released their sophomore effort, simply titled ‘Dirt.’ Undoubtedly the darkest and most foreboding album ever recorded by a grunge act, the album was full on woe-is-me on tap, dealing with subjects as cheerful as drug addiction, depression, anger and of course death, characterised by vocalist Layne Staley and guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s use of vocal harmonies and a harsher guitar tone than their contemporaries. Opener ‘Them Bones’ blasts out of the speakers with a fat chugging riff from Cantrell before a slow, grinding bridge leads the way to the briefest of choruses, with lyrics pointing out the futility of mortality; in the end, we all end up as a big ol’ pile of them bones and there’s nothing we can do about it.
‘Rain When I Die’ begins with a tar-thick bassline that slides back and forth like a rolled-up note over a coke-laden coffee table before Cantrell really lets rip with his wah-wah pedal and bends his strings all over the place. The chorus is the first time we get to hear the awesome power of vocalist Layne Staley, a tortured soul strung out on smack whose inner demons could not stifle his piercing, slightly nasal howls of anguish. When he cries ‘I think it’s gonna rain/When I die’, stretching out the final word over Cantrell’s crushing harmonics, you really do believe him, and that it won’t be too long before the rain starts falling.
Next track ‘Down In A Hole’ was initially rejected for being too soft which would have been tragic as it could be one of the finest anti-power ballads ever recorded. The sparse acoustic intro and verses soon become mired in a heart-wrenching drawn out end section with Cantrell painting many colours, all of them a shade of grey darker than the last. ‘Rooster’ touches on the topic of war and was written by Cantrell about his father, the man of the title, returning home to the country he loved after serving in Vietnam and finding himself being looked upon as something rather different than a hero. ‘They spit on me in my homeland’ croons Staley over a despondent bassline from Mike Starr before the Black Sabbath-worshipping main riff arrives in a flurry of crunching notes.
The album’s mid-section features the songs ‘Junkhead’ and ‘God Smack’, arguably two of the most pro-heroin songs ever recorded, with Staley admitting his powerlessness over his addiction and accepting the track-marked, sallow skinned existence which would ultimately be the death of him in 2002. The influence on what would become known as sludge metal is evident here as riffs crawl over the listener’s ears, dragging them down to the bottomless depths of the junkie’s torment.
‘Hate To Feel’ alternates between resonating simple chords and another grinding chorus with a choppy, anxious feel before the utter darkness of ‘Angry Chair’ shows Staley examining his mistakes and failures and coming up with no answers or hopes of redemption. The chords are basic and uncompromising, echoing the starkness of choice that the vocalist now has to live with. Final track ‘Would?’, written about the death of Mother Love Bone vocalist Andrew Wood to drug addiction will become lodged in your head for weeks after hearing it as Staley and Cantrell trade off each other expertly to underpin the strangely uplifting riffs and soaring end-section before the abrupt ending slams the door shut and all that’s left is the residue of raw, naked emotion.
‘Dirt’ went on to sell 5 million copies, spawning 5 hit singles and remains a classic of its genre. Unfortunately, the anguish it documented is all too real and the band was never able to recapture anything close to its power again. The legacy of ‘Dirt’ may have been trampled underfoot somewhat by the devotion lavished on other bands, but that is no reason to ignore a truly Classic album. Just make sure you have some tissues handy.