Alice in Chains – Dirt

Part 24 of a series that will run every Friday throughout 2012 as I discuss records that have affected me throughout the years – Flashback Fridays

It seems like most of the demonic VS. non demonic music debates have somewhat died down in recent years. In the early 90’s the tales of Ozzy Osbourne, KISS (Knights in Satan’s Service), WASP (We Are Satan’s People), and others had classic stories (some of them tall tales to be sure) going around about them. Did you hear about the kid who played a KISS record that he bought at a thrift store? It turns out his head spun around 3 times while the record was playing and someone was chanting “drink coffee” faintly in a demonic voice.

That paragraph probably sounds somewhat ludicrous to you, but sadly it was all very real and true in certain faiths (all except the coffee part I suppose). In those faiths, rap and heavy metal were considered bad – tools of Satan. It never differentiated between types of metal or types of hip hop – it was all lumped into one umbrella banner of evil (sorry Young MC and White Lion). As the 90’s progressed the rants against heavy metal in particular became somewhat silly – for a brief time metal receded into the background, deemed uncool by the dawn of grunge. It brought up a an interesting dilemma for people who cared for such debates – what would one do with music that probably was metal but fell into the new Grunge category?

I spent an ungodly amount of time in those days of grunge listening to the latest records of the era with various groups of friends, analyzing each song and being overtaken by the music. The latest record by Alice in Chains, Dirt, was for all intents and purposes a metal record. It came out of Seattle, WA in 1992 with a darkness that hadn’t been quite felt in the Nirvana and Pearl Jam records of the previous year. Was this record part of the music I had been warned about? I wasn’t really sure – all I knew was that it had the perfect intoxicating blend of Seattle vocals (anguish and pain with a healthy dose of melody) and intense music that hit you right in the gut. A demonic metal record? Not quite. It is, however a record that tries to exorcise the demons of lead singer, Layne Staley (in vain, though it wouldn’t be until 2002 that Layne succumbed to his demons).

Into The Flood Again…

Them Bones – Thrash guitar with wailing by Layne Staley to start this masterful record. Right away the listener realizes that not only are they in for a treat – it is going to be a dark, dark journey. The lyrics cut right to the…uh…bone, like reading words ripped out of a diary. Very strong chorus, giving the song a lighter feel before it all comes back to Layne’s “Aaah! Aaah! Aaah! Aaah!” part of the song. Key lyrics:

Dust rise right on over my time
Empty fossil of the new scene
I feel so alone, gonna end up a
Big ole pile of them bones

Dam That River – A more straightforward rock-n-roll song after the stunning opener. Still ridiculously heavy (sorry Doc Brown). Layne was on top of his game throughout this album as he wails and howls his way through the song. Jerry Cantrell’s contributions on guitar and harmony vocals are not to be outshined here though, and it is a true band effort. Mike Starr’s bass lends a depth to the sound of the track, and the album has delivered 2 masterpieces so far. Key lyrics:

Oh, you couldn’t dam that river
And maybe I don’t give a damn anyway
So you couldn’t dam that river
And it washed me so far away

Rain When I Die – In my opinion this is probably the 1st song on the record that sounds like early 90’s grunge. Slower vibe, locking into a metal funk sound. Guitar histrionics filling up the speakers for the first minute and a half before Layne’s vocals come in, almost holding back a bit. When it kicks into the chorus the listener’s suspicions are confirmed – he gives it everything he has. As the song progresses the darkness increases, all made clear in the lyrics. Key lyrics:

Was it something I said, held against me?
Ain’t no life on the run, slowly climbing
Caught in ice so she stares, stares at nothing
I can help her but won’t, now she hates me

Did she call my name?
I think it’s gonna rain
Oh, When I die

Sickman – The sound of a man trying to scream and sing his demons out of him. Demented metal music with a complex vocal performance. Staley makes sure the listener hears each word, the pain pouring from his soul. There is no doubt who the sick man he is referring to is. The wordless screams throughout the song send shivers up my spine. Key lyrics:

What the hell am I?
Worn eroded pride
Saddened 10 miles wide
I’m gonna let it slide

Sickman, sickman, sickman, sickman

I can feel the wheel, but I can’t steer
When my thoughts become my biggest fear
Ah, what’s the difference, I’ll die
In this sick world of mine

Rooster – Further evidence that this is a metal record – the perfectly sequenced ballad. Of course, in the world of Alice in Chains this ballad treads on dark topics and features (yet again) an anguished performance by Layne Staley. Of special note is the harmonizing on the chorus with Jerry Cantrell – with Layne’s passing away in 2002, this sometimes gets overlooked looking back on the original records. Music shifts from acoustic to electric (and back again) with ease. Key lyrics:

Here they come to snuff the rooster
Yeah here come the rooster, yeah
You know he ain’t gonna die
No, no, no ya know he ain’t gonna die

Junkhead – A painful song to listen to, knowing how Layne would end up just 10 years later. A tribute to his drug use and partying. It is difficult to tell if he believes what he is singing or if he is mocking himself (just my take on it). A deeper album cut, cut in a Black Sabbath type metal style. Key lyrics:

“Junk, fuck”
A good night, the best in a long time
A new friend turned me on to an old favorite
Nothing better than a dealer who’s high
Be high, convince them to buy

What’s my drug of choice?
Well, what have you got?
I don’t go broke
And I do it a lot

Dirt – The title track starts off with middle eastern sounding guitars and wordless wailing from Layne Staley. The song settles into a sludge metal jam (is that different from grunge? I think so.) with lyrics that again sound like they are ripped from the pages of a diary. Key lyrics:

I have never felt such frustration
Or lack of self-control
I want you to kill me
And dig me under, I wanna live no more

One who doesn’t care is one who shouldn’t be
I’ve tried to hide myself from what is wrong for me
For me

God Smack – A track that a very popular Alice in Chains influenced band named themselves after (though they made it all one word). It is a song that features a repetitive guitar riff leading up to an insanely strong chorus. This one sounds very much “90’s grunge”. The lyrics concern comparing God to a drug of choice (and vice versa). It is ridiculous just how dark this album is listening to it again 20 years later. Key lyrics:

What in God’s name have you done?
Stick your arm for some real fun

So be yearning all your life
Twisting, turning like a knife

Now you know the reasons why
Can’t get high, or you will die
Or you’ll die

Iron Gland – A silly 43 second track featuring maniacal laughing and someone saying “I Am Iron Gland”, making the Black Sabbath influence on this record very, very clear.

Hate to Feel – Mournful metal guitars to open the track, a sludge metal anthem. Staley’s vocals move in and out of the mix giving it a ghostly feel. The music moves into a mantra chant like feel for the chorus before moving back into the sludge. Sometimes we become what we despise, that’s what this song is all about. Key lyrics:

All this time I swore I’d never
Be like my old man
What the hey it’s time to face
Exactly who I am

Angry Chair – Looser feel to this song, incessant drum beat to open. Haunted (possessed) vocals by Staley. Mike Starr’s bass anchors down the song, even as the song goes further and further into the void of despair. Outstanding harmony vocals on this track are again worth mentioning. Stunning guitar solo that wouldn’t sound out-of-place on an 80’s thrash record. Key lyrics:

Sitting on an angry chair
Angry walls that steal the air
Stomach hurts and I don’t care

What do I see across the way, hey
See myself molded in clay, oh
Stares at me, yeah I’m afraid, hey
Changing the shape of his face, aw yeah

Down In A Hole – A hopeless ballad for the losers on skid row – also one of the most beautiful songs ever laid to tape. It is amazing to me how a person who could write about himself so directly and eloquently could continue down the path to destruction. Vocals are perfect, the music moves from acoustic based to electric with ease and is also perfect. Heartbreaking. Key lyrics:

Down in a hole and I don’t know if I can be saved
See my heart I decorate it like a grave
You don’t understand who they
Thought I was supposed to be
Look at me now a man
Who won’t let himself be

Down in a hole, feelin so small
Down in a hole, losin my soul
I’d like to fly,
But my wings have been so denied

Would? – This song defines the grunge era more than any other besides Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” due to its prominence in the Cameron Crowe film, Singles. Everything about this track is perfectly executed – killer bass by Mike Starr (RIP), anguished vocals by Layne (RIP), intricate guitar by Jerry and the beat perfectly held by Sean Kinney. The biggest Alice in Chains hit and deservedly so. This song IS Seattle. The lyrics have universal appeal, more than any other on the record. Key lyrics:

Into the flood again
Same old trip it was back then
So I made a big mistake
Try to see it once my way

Every Alice in Chains record as well as the Mad Season record (Layne on vox with various members of the Seattle scene) are worth seeking out. None of them go the depths of darkness that this record does. How could they? It is emotionally exhausting for the listener, one can only imagine what it was like for Layne Staley to live these things. He exorcised his demons for a short time through this record. Though he passed away in 2002 (exactly 8 years after Kurt Cobain of Nirvana) his legend lives on. Join me next week as I explore another record from the grunge era, Hole’s Live Through This.

4 thoughts on “Alice in Chains – Dirt

    • Thanks for your kind words, I really appreciate it! This is my favorite band and album from that era. I never realized that’s who was saying Gland, that makes the ties to the metal scene even more clear!

      • Absolutely. Its one of the strangest guest appearances I think I’ve heard…

        Did you like the new one they brought out? It was way better than I expected but not as dark and twisted as the older stuff.

      • I did like it…it reminded me of Jerry’s solo stuff….really unexpected to be honest. I went into it with an open mind and was happy with the results. I hear they are laying down tracks now for release in 2013….can’t wait!

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