After Layne’s Mad Season side project, Alice in Chains came back with this much-anticipated album, the one with the sad three legged dog on the cover. And though I’ll readily admit that these guys are one of my all time favorite bands, I must also admit that it took awhile for this album to sink in, and that I initially regarded it as a disappointment. That’s because the hooks aren’t as ready made, nor do they sink in as deeply as on Dirt, an album that I consider to be an absolute masterpiece. Drug references again invade the lyrics, which is a little tiring at this point, but they say to “write about what you know,” and lines like “you’d be well advised not to plan my funeral before the body dies” would prove eerily prophetic.
On a more positive note, the band continues to expand their sound, as a middle ground between the ultra heavy Dirt and the more melodic Jar Of Flies appears to have been reached, though they generally lean toward the heavy side of things. The songwriting chores are also more evenly split up than in the past where Cantrell had dominated the songwriting credits, while Cantrell sings lead on a few songs rather than Staley, who writes the vast majority of the lyrics. “Grind,” “Heaven Beside You” and “Again” were the fine radio tracks, but also excellent are the bludgeoning “Head Creeps” and the evocative sing along “Shame In You.” “Nothin’ Song” likewise demonstrates the band’s ability to be both catchy and weird (in a good way), while intense mid-tempo tracks such as the rocking atheist anthem “God Am” and the soulful finale “Over Now” (my personal favorite) showcase the band’s haunting harmonies and Cantrell’s searing guitar work.
True, some of these songs occasionally wallow in their own sludge, and several tracks, most notably (the still good) “Sludge Factory” and “Frogs,” could use a little trimming. Also, perhaps there are few instantly identifiable classics along the lines of “Man In The Box,” “Nutshell,” “Rooster,” and “Would?,” but perseverance will reward listeners with yet another highly satisfying and in my opinion quite underrated album.
Once again Alice in Chains showed their collective greatness when they released this experimental EP in early 1994 (though at over 31 minutes this EP is longer than many classic LPs from the ‘60s).
Sporting a versatility that shocked many listeners upon its release (a bigger shock was its ascension to the #1 Billboard slot upon its release, a first for an EP), Jar Of Flies showed that good things could happen when a group is allowed to “just mess around” in the studio, provided that they have the chemistry and talent to make it work. As with Sap, the band shows off their mellower side here, but again the music retains its dense potency. Acoustic guitars are often the primary musical ingredient, but the band’s increased melodicism makes Jar Of Flies even more impressive than the previous EP, while Jerry Cantrell’s versatile guitar playing, including many a stellar solo, reinforces his standing as a major talent.
This album is a coldly beautiful yet often harrowing experience, and the vulnerable countryish ballad “Don’t Follow” can be seen as Cantrell’s pull no punches take on Staley’s drug addictions (“sleep in sweat the mirrors cold, see my face it’s growin’ old.”). Likewise, the less musically successful “Swing On This” can be seen as Staley’s ominous answer: “let me be, I’m alright, can’t you see I’m just fine.” More convincing is the desolate “Nutshell,” arguably the best song here, on which Staley states “and yet I fight this battle all alone, no one to cry to, no place to call home.”
Other highlights include the weirdly moody, wah wah-infested epic (6:59) “Rotten Apple,” the anthemic “I Stay Away,” a popular radio track on which strings lend a powerful hand, and the groovy, melodic hit single “No Excuses.” Even “Whale & Wasp,” a mere mood enhancing guitar instrumental, seems perfectly in place, as, one album after delivering one of the best heavy metal albums ever, Alice In Chains delivered one of my favorite “chill out” albums of all time.
It turns out that Alice in Chains were just getting started, and there’s just no way that I can do this masterpiece justice with this measly little review. Simply put, the relentlessly heavy Dirt is one the darkest, most exciting, despairingly beautiful albums of all time. Layered, churning riffs and a powerhouse rhythm section move along the strange vocal harmonies, which are as brilliant in their own disturbing way to create a dense, foreboding sound that you can almost feel.
Many of these songs contain complex, shifting dynamics that show off an awesome musical unit, while the tortured vocals often focus on the destructive dangers of drug addiction. In fact, Staley would afterwards confess to a major heroin addiction (his “drug of choice,” so to speak), surprising nobody who listened to this album. Rather than celebrate or preach about their chosen lifestyle, Alice in Chains simply tell it like it is (or at least how they see it), and pretty it isn’t. But it is incredibly powerful, and the band’s increased sophistication was duly noted by the critics, who in particular appreciated “The Rooster,” a poignant tribute to Jerry Cantrell Sr., a Vietnam War veteran.
Both the best heavy metal album of the decade and the best drug album ever made (a dubious distinction, to be sure), Dirt is certainly not for the faint of heart. However, listeners who like their music heavy should find the album hypnotic; highlights include “Them Bones,” “The Rooster,” “Angry Chair,” “Down In A Hole,” and “Would?,” but my sole recommendation would be to put it on, press play, turn it up to 10, and prepare to be awed.
This album predated the grunge explosion, though the band would thereafter get lumped in with the other major Seattle bands (Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam) who “broke” at around the same time. Still, each had their own distinct sound, and Facelift was an ultra heavy and dark debut album with a brilliant beginning barrage.
“We Die Young” immediately introduced Jerry Cantrell’s crunching guitar riffs and singer Layne Staley’s intense vocal delivery, while the heavily wah wah-ed “Man In The Box” became a signature song and the one that first got the band noticed. Next, “Sea Of Sorrow” surges along on a sing along chorus before the band gets more atmospheric for “Bleed The Freak” and “I Can’t Remember.” On the latter song you can really sense Staley’s feelings of helplessness, and (the overly long) “Love Hate Love” features an equally tormented vocal performance. “It Ain’t Like That” and the brighter, bluesy “Sunshine” keep things rolling right along, but aside from “Confusion” the rest of the album can’t quite maintain the impressive pace of the album’s first half.
Still, the albums less than exemplary conclusion doesn’t too badly mar this strong introduction to the band’s singular sound. A big part of that sound is the band’s eerie vocal harmonies, which add a unique, otherworldly element to their thick and muscular attack. This is Alice in Chains’ most straightforwardly metallic album, and it’s extremely effective as such, but this mighty quartet would soon broaden their palette considerably and deliver even more richly rewarding efforts.