Empty Fossil of the New Scene: Alice In Chains’ Dirt at 30
Nathan Carson checks out the band’s sophomore classic for the very first time
How is it possible, you might ask, that a doom metal aficionado, musician, journalist and FM radio DJ could possibly have waited until 2022 to sit down with a copy of Alice In Chains’ highly acclaimed and most successful album Dirt?
The short answer is that, in 1992, I was a Pacific Northwest music snob who had seen Nirvana twice on the Bleach tours when they were still hungrily and savagely opening for bigger bands. Based on idealistic moral screeds I’d read in indie music mags, heard from the stage at early Fugazi shows, and gleaned from conversations at my local record store, I was horrified when my favorite semi-local band Nirvana signed to Geffen Records and became shellacked MTV darlings.
Not only did I stop buying Nirvana records, I felt compelled to get rid of all my flannel shirts, because all of a sudden the practical, affordable uniform of my childhood had been co-opted into a fashion movement that made me look like a trend-hopping poser through no fault of my own.
In retrospect, the problem was mostly me, not the bands who had taken their careers and creativity from starvation wage underground channels into the cassette decks of impressionable teens around the world.
In my defense, Alice In Chains became really big, really fast. They were signed to Columbia Records based on a demo and some local gigging in Seattle. I was always suspicious when a band rocketed to fame without doing the long hard slogs in the touring trenches. Now—as an adult with decades of music industry experience—I simply see their short path to the top as a combination of luck and skill, inspiration, timing, and follow-through.
Though I’ve fairly recently fallen backwards into my appreciation for AIC, I do credit myself for giving the band a fair shake out of the gate. The first house I lived in after dropping out of my freshman year at U of O found me sharing space with three other guys. There were many nights that we’d sit in the basement, turn off the lights, kick on a strobe, pass the pipe and crank loud, heavy albums. Thanks to the guy who rented that basement as his bedroom (the brother of my girlfriend at that time), Alice In Chains’ debut album Facelift was in rotation.
I remember Chris telling me many times, “Dude, it’s all about ‘Bleed The Freak’!”
I can’t say I agreed with him. The irony of course is that some of the albums I was bringing to those sessions were not cut from cloth of a different stain. Ozzy had just released No More Tears, which I adored. And I was getting big into Danzig III: How The Gods Kill after seeing that tour (with support from up-and-comers White Zombie and Kyuss). So it’s not like overproduction or vocal histrionics should have been any kind of issue.
Voivod’s Nothingface and Primus’ Sailing The Seas Of Cheese were getting a ton of play in our house, too. Why would I have felt that AIC was awkward or annoying when I gave both of those bucking broncos a pass?
It would be one more year before I became a devout fan of the Swedish traditional doom metal band Candlemass. Had someone taken me aside in 1993 and said, “Dude, Dirt is the second biggest doom metal album of all time after fucking Paranoid,” it might have made an impression.
AIC came to play the W.O.W. Hall in Eugene on the Facelift tour and I could have gone. But for some reason I mentally lumped their appearance at that classic all ages venue in with other artists touring through at that time that I deemed tacky from afar—bands like Shotgun Messiah who most of you probably don’t remember (and good for you).
Likewise, my hesher friends from Salem drove to Portland to catch AIC as the odd-men-out opener on the Clash of the Titans tour with Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax. They were duly unimpressed.
Publicity shots didn’t do the band any favors, either. When I saw Layne Staley with bleach blonde hair, a goatee, and the same black bug-eyed sunglasses that Kurt Cobain and Scott Weiland wore, it was that much easier to treat the band like sullied bathwater I didn’t want near my skin.
Of course the parade of no less than five hit singles off Dirt was impossible to ignore. But until tonight, I’d never heard them arranged as a hard drug semi-concept album glued together by eight more songs that weren’t abused by FM radio. Still, with the patented vocal harmonies (which sounded formulaic to me based on the few AIC songs I’d actually heard) and Staley’s occasional plunges into Grunge vocalist yarling, I did my best to just change the station and look the other way. For decades.
In 1994, when “Got You Wrong” off Sap became a hit after its appearance in Clerks (which I also still haven’t seen), I did like that one quite a bit. Cantrell’s smooth vocals worked for me, and I had no issue with it being an acoustic song. It was clearly Layne Staley’s vocal style and depressive message that couldn’t penetrate my precocious audio forcefield. The music I could hang with.
Fast forward to 2009 when a reunited AIC released the lead single for its first album with new singer William DuVall, “Check My Brain”. By this time I was an old head at judging doom riffs. I’d shared the stage with Electric Wizard, Pentagram, and High on Fire. Many of these bands had slept on my floor. “Check My Brain” was largely built on a single bending note. It was one of the heaviest riffs I’d ever heard on commercial radio. I was impressed, intrigued, and by then wise enough to no longer feel any responsibility to cater my musical taste to any sort of continuum of cool.
But I still didn’t rush out and buy Black Gives Way To Blue. That didn’t happen until last year, after I heard AIC’s 2016 cover of “Tears” on the expanded Rush – 2112 40th Anniversary album. Once again I was reminded that AIC was still a band, and Layne Staley was no longer any kind of obstacle to my enjoyment. Finding a used copy of the CD for $5 in a new arrival bin, I put it in my car and found that I liked it.
Which brings us to the present day. There are a lot of ways to listen to music in 2022. My responsible approach was to check out a CD of Dirt from my local public library. I wanted to hear it uncompressed in my best headphones. While I listened, I played muted YouTube lyric videos so I could follow along. It was a very good hour.
I’ve heard “Them Bones” in whole or part countless times, but tonight it really struck me as an inspired album opener, rather than 2:29 of radio grunge. I’m a sucker for a brutally heavy ascending riff. How many metal songs in 7/8 time have broken into the top 30, anyway?
“Dam That River” wasn’t a single, though I recognized it instantly. I really have no idea if that’s because it did get some play here in the Northwest, or maybe it’s just because it’s the second song and I actually made it that far into the album before leaving the room when someone had it on. Either way, its staccato mathematics and southern snarl are effectively devastating. It’s here, too, that I started to notice that Layne Staley had several vocal modes. Much of the time he’s just filling the role of a great singer, favorably comparing to Axl Rose and Chris Cornell.
So far as I can tell, this is the first time I’ve heard “Rain When I Die”. Refreshing as it is to hear an AIC song that wasn’t ruined by radio, I can still hear why this six-minute song in 6/4 time wasn’t selected as a single. The formula is there, with a slithering odd-timed riff interrupted by the requisite uplifting 4/4 chorus. But the real magic of this song is the breakdown during the last minute. That slowly bending guitar note is clearly the antecedent of the riff in “Check My Brain.” I could do without the rote “Helter Skelter” fade-back-in trick, but I’m not complaining.
VIDEO: Alice In Chains “Down in a Hole”
I’m not sure whose idea it was to make “Down In A Hole” the last single released from Dirt. I suppose it all worked out fine, but damn, what a terrific song. Staley keeps the vocal wavering to a minimum, and the sense of surrender in the guitar melody is *chef’s kiss*. This is one of the few times that the sun-breaking-through-the-clouds chorus doesn’t sound tacked on. I feel the same way about Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters.” It’s just so well done and bereft of offensive elements that all I can say is, bravo.
“Sickman” immediately brings my mind back to the Facelift era, and also forward toward the hooks that Rob Zombie clearly plucked for his own use. When the song stumbles into a waltz, I’m reminded of “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” even though Lennon always denied that song was about heroin. I could do without the chorus of voices singing about “rape and despair” and especially the evil child laugh in the midsection, though it does rock when the key modulates upward. This is also the song where it dawned on me that Dirt must have been produced by whoever did the Jane’s Addiction records. Of course when I checked, there it was, Dave Jerden. Dude’s got a sound.
“Rooster” kind of inhabits the same realm as “Janie’s Got A Gun” and “Stairway To Heaven” in that it’s so ubiquitous that it’s tough to judge, or deny its resilience. On one hand it’s an undeniable masterpiece that will be with us forever. On the other, it’s been robbed of its power by oversaturation, and includes some of Staley’s most criminal yarls.
“Junkhead” is another reminder that, in the best of ways, Alice In Chains really found the middle ground between Guns ‘n’ Roses and Black Sabbath. It’s a brilliant mash-up that they made their own, and anyone else who does it just ends up sounding like Alice In Chains. This includes many moments on Black Sabbath’s low-tide albums from this period, especially “Virtual Death” on 1994’s Cross Purposes. Give that a listen and try to tell me I’m wrong.
Edgy as Staley’s hard drug cheerleading was, lines like “I don’t go broke, and I do it a lot” don’t move me much. Maybe if I’d been strung out and suicidal thirty years ago, this could have been an anthem to listen to alone in a dirty bedroom. I’m alone in a clean, comfortable bedroom tonight, and it’s really the guitars that carry this music for me. There’s no denying that Jerry Cantrell is one of the all time greats, especially thanks to his penchant for effective repetition, and sense of economic minimalism.
Dirt’s title track is a refreshing blast of warm dark air from the crypt. Another five minutes of doom that I don’t recall ever hearing before. If you’re the kind of person who wishes they could hear this album again for the first time, thank you for appreciating the ride I’m on.
The fact that the band Godsmack named itself after the song “God Smack” is the type of guilt-by-association that no one needs or deserves. Neither do any of us need to hear Staley’s Katherine Hepburn meets Jello Biafra vibrato vocal affectation, which is downright criminal here. Oh well, you can’t win ‘em all.
If anything, that stinker just makes the 43-second goof “Iron Gland” sound better. I don’t mind it, nor does Tom Araya’s presence diminish Dirt in any way.
VIDEO: Alice In Chains “Rooster”
I’d been sincerely hoping that this listen would reveal an Alice In Chains non-single deep cut that would really reach me. I think “Hate To Feel” is that song. It covers a lot of territory, and swings into some very Sabbathy/Danziggy danger zones. Overall, it’s heavy as snot, and I don’t mean the band. It’s also the last song on the album that wasn’t flogged by commercial stations like Dirt’s double-threat finale of “Angry Chair” and “Would”.
Dirt was the right album at the right time, with a huge label seriously behind it. I mistook the aggressive marketing as a sign that it was a calculated product. Giving it a fair shake now, it comes across as a painfully honest and graphic piece of art. Staley meant what he said, and died for it. The rest of the guys still had a lot more music to make, and not for the money. I’m glad they’ve continued on.
Dirt is not likely to step into the pantheon of my all time favorite doom albums, but it’s made me curious to explore AIC’s entire catalog now. As far as I can tell there’s good music on every record, and a dedication to heaviness that supersedes most of their contemporaries. The prime exception, of course, is God’s Balls by Tad, thee heaviest Seattle album ever…until Burning Witch came long.
Of course I woke up the next morning with inescapable earworm “Rooster” in my head. You know, he ain’t gonna die.
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