As a Seattle based band that rose to prominence in the early ’90s, Alice In Chains was often lumped in with the grunge scene that was so popular at that time. But to paint them as just another band among their flannel clad peers would be doing a huge disservice to their legacy. With a run of fantastic albums, they’ve influenced a vast legion of (unfortunately mostly lame) bands from Godsmack to Staind. And their sophomore effort Dirt is arguably the pinnacle of their work.
While other grunge bands took influence from a wide range of styles like punk, noise rock, indie rock, and even classic rock, Alice In Chains was firmly in the metal camp. Their slow, downtuned riffs put them more in line with Black Sabbath and the Melvins rather than the likes of the Pixies and Black Flag.
That dark, heavy sound was continued on their second album and amplified. The murky, dirge-like crawl of guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s riffs ensured that this would serve as a template to a new generation of sludge metal bands. But far from just throwing doom metal cliches at the listener, Cantrell proved he could play more subdued as in “Rooster”, and could even get psychedelic, an example being the instrumentation during the chorus and breakdown of “Junkhead,” as well as the plentiful wah effects throughout, notably in “Dirt.” And then there’s a song like “Sickman,” which I imagine to be the sound of losing your mind and descending into insanity.
Of course, a good band isn’t truly a great band without a tight rhythm section, and thankfully, bassist Mike Starr and drummer Sean Kinney rise to the occasion splendidly. Starr’s basslines enchance the murky depths the band were going for tonally and help to flesh out the sound, which is necessary for a heavy album like this. Kinney’s pounding, crushing, and even tribal (as heard in “Sickman”) drum beats gives the album that propulsive drive it needs to be as heavy as it is. While their roles in the band were often understated, I would argue that the album wouldn’t be hailed as the classic it is today without their contributions.
The star of the show, however, is Layne Staley. You simply can not discuss the overall legacy of Alice In Chains without mentioning Layne. While William DuVall does a great job with the unenviable task of filling Layne’s shoes, no one will ever truly be able to replace him. While many have tried to replicate Layne’s unique vocals, he was one of a kind and is still sorely missed today. His vocals are haunting, yet also affecting. They add weight to the bleak lyrics and dark tone the album was going for while sounding distinctive from other metal bands of the time. Perhaps he wasn’t the most technically gifted singer ever, but very few possessed the raw emotional power this man wielded. And as if that wasn’t enough, you get the vocal harmonies between Layne and Jerry, which is quite unusual in a metal band and adds even more layers to the emotional resonance.
And then we get to the dark subject matter at the core of this album. It is undeniably bleak, pessimistic, and unflinchingly hopeless. This is an album where happiness goes to die, and it’s certainly a step above the cynical “me too” complaint rock popular in the early ’90s. It’s leagues beyond the generic teen angst that typified many grunge bands of the time. The order of the day here is drug addiction, depression, self loathing, suicidal thoughts, and feeling completely alone in the world.
It’s well known that Layne Staley had a lot of personal demons he was battling, a battle he would unfortunately lose years later. His heroin addiction and depression was consuming his life, and the album could be seen as a form of musical self-therapy. In a song like “Junkhead,” he almost seems to glorify the junkie lifestyle, but in reality, it’s a harrowing look at how drugs have overtaken his life and how it was the only thing that really made him happy anymore. “Hate To Feel” goes even further and details how he turned into the thing he hated and wishes he could go completely numb to the world around him. You get a line like “I want to taste dirty, a stinging pistol, in my mouth, on my tongue” from the track “Dirt,” showing you where his head was at while recording the album. “Down In A Hole” absolutely lacks optimism and perfectly captures the feeling of total hopelessness. But you do get moments of tenderness in “Rooster,” detailing Jerry Cantrell’s father’s experience as a Vietnam veteran, and “Would?,” a tribute to deceased Malfunkshun and Mother Love Bone vocalist Andy Wood, who was a close friend of the band.
It’s an album that has the power to speak to many, myself included. I couldn’t tell you what it’s like to be a junkie, but I certainly know how it feels to struggle with depression. I know all too well the feeling of hating myself and wishing I was dead. The feeling of absolute hopelessness. It’s the kind of experience that no one should have to suffer through. And though I am generally happier now than when I was going through all that, it is comforting to listen to music like this when I’m in a dark place and know I’m not alone in this battle, that someone else knows the pain of suffering from depression. Layne was a voice for his generation, and generations after who could relate to such emotions.
Simply put, Dirt is a triumph in everything it sets out to do. The crushing heaviness and downtuned monolithic riffs made this a touchstone for future generations of metal bands, particularly of the sludge variety. The lyrical honesty and emotional impact still resonates today and it has the power to be relatable and therapeutic to listeners who deal with many of the same issues. The grim subject matter places it beyond the whining so common in other alternative bands. If you were to ask me, not only is this the greatest achievement of the grunge scene, it’s one of my all time favorite albums, period.