Alice in Chains – Dirt (1992)

I find it difficult to approach grunge the same way I can most other musical genres when trying to write about it. I’m tempted to say it’s because of a certain refusal of poetry in the music, a refusal of romance, but that’s only partly true, on the one hand, and it’s not specific to grunge, on the other hand. Perhaps the reason is more personal than that, seeing as I more or less grew up with this music all around me, even though my musical tastes always lagged behind a few years – when Nirvana was all the rage, I was barely discovering Guns’n’Roses. The bottom line is I feel I love this genre above most other instances of rock, but I can’t explain this attraction very well. Alice in Chains is, however, without a doubt, my favorite band of the nineties, and this album is in my opinion their best.

I found out about Alice in Chains from an old friend of mine who spent years trying to make me like Iron Maiden (to no avail, sorry dude). I was in one of my musical exploratory binges, and he had gotten a huge collection of metal tapes (cassette tapes!!) from an uncle, if memory serves. Alice in Chains’ Dirt was one of these tapes, and I took to it instantly. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard before – such harmony joined to such epic might, such emotion and sincerity, such shearing, ferocious guitars and organic rhythms… I was mesmerized and, dare I say it, became addicted to their sound. I would listen on repeat, for days and weeks, murmuring the songs under my voice when I couldn’t blast them out of the stereo, wishing I could sing them with Layne Staley’s soaring, raspy voice. I guess it was the first time I was feeling like a fan of a band as opposed to simply liking them.

Surely, at that time I was a little too young to understand most of the lyrics on this album, many of them dealing with the struggle with drug addiction, but the music was (and still is) more than enough to keep me interested – it’s deceptively complex, constantly switching tempo, playing with so many layers of harmony and instrumentation, shifting gracefully from a hard-rock aesthetic to a definite metal mind-set at the blink of an eye. Alice in Chains have some of the most well thought out and intricate music in the grunge genre, demonstrating remarkable code-switching ability not only on Dirt but throughout their career. Their releases usually alternated heavy, electric albums with usually shorter, acoustic records of surprising tenderness and melancholy. There are no such folk forays on Dirt though, as this record maintains a robust rhythm from the very get-go, reaching a sort of maddening breakdown in the middle, with the bitterly ironic/demonic God Smack track.The record as a whole maintains a very tightly-knit mood, stays coherent, in spite of the protean nature of the songs. I think the wonderful thing about Alice in Chains is their ability to pace their music, to play with the listeners’ expectations of when a musical climax should ensue. While maintaining a definite pop sensibility and lack of pretension, they manage to stay surprising and complex on a compositional level, and energizing when it comes to actual musical skill (Jerry Cantrell and Layne Staley made a tremendous song-writing and performing team).

After Layne’s death, Alice in Chains went under the radar for over a decade, only to resurface in 2009 with the remarkable “Black Gives Way To Blue” album, which denotes a few changes in aesthetic, gives the impression of a band shaking off the cobwebs and re-learning the ropes, but still captures that legendary vitality and depth the original line-up used to project. It’s reasonably likely that we’ll see a new release from Alice in Chains this year, according to multiple online sources and Jerry Cantrell’s own statements made throughout 2011. I’ve got my fingers crossed, seeing as they’re the only band left, in my opinion, that continues to make grunge relevant and powerful to this day. I hope you enjoy these songs from Dirt, and I’ll see you soon!