It’s so very tempting to blame Alice in Chains for directly influencing countless “nu metal” bands who sucked in the late ‘90s and 2000s, continue to suck now, and shall forever suck in the future. Not only did AiC have a major role in taking down an entire generation of fun-spirited metal bands, but also the group’s bleak sound became the blueprint for the dark, self-loathing face of metal in the 21st Century. You have to hate AiC, right? Wish you could go back in time and prevent them from ever existing? Uh, no. For while nearly every single band that’s imitated Alice in Chains can be rightfully described as unlistenable, the genuine article still sparkles. Dirt, AiC’s second LP, sounds as good today as it did 18 years ago, and still rates as one of my all-time fave heavy metal albums. Is it gloomy? Bleak? Dark? Depressing? Yes on all counts. And I love it!
Jerry Cantrell, Layne Staley, and their bandmates created such a masterpiece of misery that it could not be successfully copied. Modern takes on the AiC sound come off as tuneless exercises in manufactured angst. Dirt, on the other hand, was not contrived but rather born out of the very real throes of heroin addiction and death obsession. It’s a thundering, screeching beast of an album – far from pleasant but in its own way an immensely enjoyable listen. Rooted in the brooding heaviness of Black Sabbath but reflective of an edgy, angst-ridden age in American life, Dirt proved to be just as much of a culture-changer as the previous year’s Nevermind. And while any perceived connection between Nirvana and AiC was purely a media fabrication, it cannot be denied that both bands were deserving of acclaim. Had the “grunge” fad never existed, had Alice in Chains been from Idaho or Canada or Celebration, Florida instead of Seattle, Dirt would still have been one of the most powerful and memorable hard rock albums of its time. All these years later, the thing still flat-out rips!
While Alice in Chains would eventually cultivate a tempered, mellowed-out groove best exemplified by the Jar of Flies EP, the band was at its best when it stuck to heavy rock. As introspective, haunting, and sophisticated as it often is, Dirt is pure fire and fury – one of the hardest and heaviest mainstream rock albums to come out of any era. Cantrell’s battering riffs, so steeped in the classic rock/hard rock tradition, are as memorable as they are muscular. Staley, who would eventually succumb to the drug addiction he laments here, is an anguished, convincingly desparate vocalist. He channels all his demons, all his inexhaustible angst, all his fear and pain and utter hoplessness, into something genuine and powerful and truly remarkable. He gives a performance for the ages, lending chilling conviction to already dark lyrics. And beneath the thundering, sludgy guitars and pounding drum beats are genuine melodies. The likes of Staind and Godsmack and countless other douchey modern rock bands managed to imitate the style, but none of them had even a fraction of the talent that made Alice in Chains special. And how many of the wannabes had the songs to go toe-to-toe with their heroes? From the pitch-black blitzkrieg of “Them Bones” to the epic slow burn of “The Rooster” (BEST WAR SONG EVER!) to the seam-busting hysteria of “God Smack”, Dirt is loaded with the A-grade material to match its conceptual aspirations. It’s not even possible to dislike the MTV hit “Would?” – a song good enough to be forgiven for its association with Cameron Crowe’s lame attempt at a “grunge” movie, Singles.
Alice in Chains would manage to produce just one more LP between the release of Dirt and Staley’s death in 2002. The group eventually carried on with a replacement vocalist, and released an album last year. But come on – without Layne Staley, it’s not really Alice in Chains. Cantrell and Staley, each considerable talents on their own, were really best as a tandem. Musically, at least, they played off of each other’s strengths and far exceeded what either could have done alone. One might think that it would be difficult to listen to Dirt knowing that Staley was destined to die at the hands of the very demons he confronts in these songs. But in some strange way, I find this a life-affirming record. Staley’s life may have been ill-fated and far too short, but he at least left behind music that comforted and inspired others. We are all, to some degree, terminal in this life, and Dirt begins with that exact sentiment: “I believe them bones are me,” sings Staley. “Some say we’re born into a grave. I feel so alone; gonna end up a big old pile of them bones.” Morbid as they may be, Cantrell’s lyrics remind us that no one lives forever. Dirt, which rages against the dying of the light, isn’t really an album about death. It’s an album about life. Smart, soulful, and rocking to the core, it represented the beginning and the end of “new” metal.