"What's my drug of choice? Well, what have you got?"
The tormented words of lead singer and co-frontman Layne Staley on the song Junkhead, as clear as they'll ever be. These are the words of a junkie; depressed, alone and suicidal. It is this way of life that fuels the theme and lyrical content on what may be Alice in Chain's greatest effort, their sophomore major label dubet Dirt. Grunge doesn't get much better than this.
While Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam were almost ready to tear up the mainstream music scene with their own major label album debuts in 1992, Alice In Chains had already made it with their debut Facelift in 1990. While maybe not as good as their second album, it was a nice slice of what was to come, despite not being as world-changing as say Nevermind. That was because it was, in effect, a metal album. AIC were being marketed as a heavy metal band, and were viewed as one by the public.
As grunge exploded on the radio, there were three albums released in the early '90s that many say are the ones that "changed the world"; Nirvana's Nevermind, Pearl Jam's Ten, and Alice in Chains' Dirt. If I were to cut this review drastically short, and pick which one of these albums was the best, I would pick Dirt. A concept album telling the tale of a junkie on the verge of suicide, it is one of the darkest albums of the '90s, and an undeniable classic. While maybe not as in your face lyrically or as progressive as other concept albums (Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral, virtually every Radiohead album ever, Korn's Issues), Staley and Cantrell's melodic and deeply emotional voices make the sort of impact that a synthesiser could never make.
Alice In Chains were:
The album starts off with Them Bones, an explosion of heavy metal riffs and tormented screaming. Running at 2 minutes and 30 seconds, it could be one of Alice in Chains' best songs ever written. Following this apocalyptic starting is Dam That River. One of the more metaphorical songs on the album, this is less obvious in it's theme. But that doesn't mean it's a bad song - the catchy riffs, the melodical lyrics and a punching percussion and bass combo makes it unmissable.
Rain when I Die is a lot slower than the previous songs, but also manages to be just about as heavy as them as well. About the tragic loss of a girlfriend, who probably will never forgive the protagonist, it's a very emotional song. Following on that note is Sickman, a much faster and a more disturbing song. The swirling screaming accompaning the chorus may be quite hair-raising, but it fits the song perfectly.
Rooster is one of the larger highlights on the album. A slow but powerful acoustic ballad, and timed at 6 minutes and 14 seconds, it's a very emotional song about what seems to be suicide and a lack of someone to help Staley through it (crucifixiate claims this is about Jerry Cantrell's Vietnam Veteran Father). Junkhead, while a lot heavier than Rooster, is just as personal and emotional as any other song on the album, perhaps even more. It explores the effects of Heroin and the life that accompanies it. Cantrell's surging riffs with Staley's powerful voice make's this one of AIC's most memorable songs.
Dirt, the title track of the album, has perhaps one of the most memorable starting guitar riffs of any grunge song. This is also another song about suicide, and perhaps more of an accepting stance on Staley's point of view. The line "One who doesn't care is one who shouldn't be" is as memorable as the opening riff. One of the best songs.
Godsmack is yet another song about heroin, but seems to have a sort of humour hidden in it. The guitar and lyrics make the sort of melody that you would expect more in a Nirvana song, instead of a crunching AIC song. But as it hits the chorus, the real stuff kicks in and everything is well again. A hidden track kicks in now, entitled Intro (Dream Sequence). This is a great example that AIC still have a sense of humour, with it's over the top hair metal riff and Demonesque vocals. It could be serious, but it doesn't sound like it. It's nice to see that AIC can still smile.
Hate To Feel, if it weren't for Them Bones, would be the greatest song on the album. It starts out like any other AIC song, with a slow beat with winding vocals and guitars. But then the chorus kicks in, and it suddenly turns into a song not unlike Dam that River. The next track is Angry Chair, a very eerie song, with a riff you would expect from an Egyptian influenced metal band. The chorus is the greatest of the entire album, with Staley's voice filling the dark lyrics with an unusual sense of hope. Down in a Hole comes next, and is quite possibly one of the most depressing songs AIC has ever written. It's very slow, and sound's a bit like Rooster, except the chorus is a lot better and more powerful than Rooster could ever be. Any hope hinted at in Angry Chair has been neatly cleasned off the table.
The ending track is <>Would?, the first single and one of the darkest songs AIC ever wrote. The tune supplied by the bass and guitar mixture is abosultely amazing. The slow dual-performed lyrics are very slow and contrast well with the eerie and echoic beat. When the chorus kicks in, AIC have left their old selfs back home and are kicking with some Soundgarden-stylised metal. Almost every one of the riffs on the this song is a solo piece, almost all of them being completely independant of the others. And the final line "If I would, could you?" sends a chill down the spine - the perfect way to end the album.
So there you have it. 57 minutes and 30 seconds of pure, unadulterated grunge classics. If I haven't already made it clear, anyone with a taste of grunge or metal (or any sort of rock for that matter) should go out and buy this album. Unfortunately, AIC would never again match the lyrical content and powerful musical ability shown in this album, because of the tragic death of Layne Staley on April 5th, 2002, from an overdose of drugs.
One of the most powerful albums of the '90s. Cherish it.