Of the four great bands from Seattle, Alice In Chains are easily the darkest and heaviest. Though they have been lumped into the "grunge" category, the band actually formed in the mid-80's, releasing their debut album a year before Nirvana's Nevermind. Without getting into unnecessary comparisons between the two bands, upon Nevermind's significant breakthrough in early 90's music, Alice In Chains' label also started to promote them as an alternative band. That said, musically they are worlds apart. While carrying some of the genre's characteristics, Alice In Chains encompasses deeper musical thought, utilising heavy fretwork and delving fearlessly into the path paved by Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin in the 1970's.
Dirt is the band's crowning achievement and arguably better than anything that came out from the Seattle bands. It would be hard to imagine any dedicated metalhead who hasn't heard this album. The songwriting duo of Alice In Chains, consisting of guitarist Jerry Cantrell and vocalist Layne Staley, is among the most exciting and powerful of the early US heavy metal scene. The duo penned songs reeking of pain and misery, but rather than merely sticking to angst-ridden methods, they also backed their material with impressive musical traits, both vocally and instrumentally.
Cantrell especially surpasses any guitarist of his era, not so much with his technique but with his unmatched vision of composition. Unlike many others, he was not afraid to insert well-written lead solos into his craft, merging both his love for odd rhythm work and fluid, blues-inflected leads. Starting with the first track "Them Bones", a short but powerful statement, Cantrell plants hugely melodic lead threads underneath Staley's painful screams and the rumbling bass and drum anchor. His songs are graced by sludgy guitar build-ups, best heard on "Sickman", starting out with a phenomenal drum intro by Sean Kinney and blending into Cantrell's long, sustained guitar notes that bleed atmosphere. The song goes through both sickeningly heavy passages and dark acoustic sections. Complementing Layne's unique singing is some spoken words and evil laughters distantly echoing in the mix. The song climaxes with a beautiful Zeppelin-esque solo, something only Soundgarden could come close to of other bands.
Layne Staley remains the most honest lyricist and vocalist among his peers. His vocal style is ultimately versatile, as he effortlessly switches from aggressive lines on "Dam That River" to desperate croons on the underrated "Rain When I Die", possibly his most heartfelt performance ever. A true collaborative effort, this is a song with weird guitar effects by Cantrell (lots of killer wah pedals and vibrato on this track), gloomy lyrics, sturdy bass, and incredible vocals. The chorus is most striking and his honest tone makes the listener literally believe when he delivers the lyrics.
This album produced most of the band's hits. "Rooster" is a personal piece about Cantrell's father who fought in the Vietnam war, alternating between nimble acoustic guitars and explosive riffs. This song also features excellent backing vocals which are achingly beautiful. The composition is most consistent, following a subtle thematic development where Staley hums Cantrell's melody both in the intro and outro. "Angry Chair", written entirely by Staley, is another big number and perhaps a bit more underground than the cuts penned by Cantrell. The song follows unorthodox patterns, particularly in the way it is finalised: check out the tribal drumming at the end; or refer to the superbly wicked, off-time guitar work on "Hate to Feel", the other song written by Layne on his own. This is an oppressive dirge, developing a bleak, nihilistic aura and taking on an impossibly catchy chorus. It is depressing and gives us an insight into Staley's tortured soul, but there's still a ream of light peeking through its relentless misery. Not a single song is filler, which makes Dirt all the more essential. From the personal "Junkhead", depicting Layne's drug addiction which would eventually lead to his passing; to the slightly exotic-sounding title track, painting a surreal picture of suicide and self-loathing ("One who doesn't care is one who shouldn't be"); to the bass-driven "God Smack", offering one of the most addictive choruses ever, the album is in a league all its own.
Worthy of mention is the forty-second hidden track "Iron Gland" (though it is not mentioned in either the US or European version of the album) features guest vocals by Slayer's Tom Araya. Araya's unique howls pulled from the pits of hell are underpinend by Cantrell's non-commercial, atonal guitar effects. It is interesting how even the most dedicated Alice In Chains and Slayer fans are unaware of this, but if you check the booklet, you will see Tom Araya is mentioned.
"Down in a Hole" and "Would?" are the two songs that close the album (though some versions of "Down In A Hole" have it as track four), possibly the strongest one-two punch from Cantrell. "Down in a Hole", a song about rejection and failure, and utter dismay, it is literally intoxicating in its arresting mood, depressing vocals, and soaring guitars. It is a personal favourite. "Would?", on the other hand, is one of their most well-known songs ever, with ethnic drumming, intense harmonies, and powerful dual guitar attack.
Dirt is the definitive album from the Seattle movement.
- Them Bones
- Dam That River
- Rain When I Die
- God Smack
- Iron Gland (hidden track)
- Hate to Feel
- Angry Chair
- Down In A Hole