Release Date: September 29, 1992
Artist: Alice in Chains
Producer: Dave Jerden, Alice in Chains
Personnel: Layne Staley (lead vocals), Jerry Cantrell (lead and rhythm guitars, backing vocals), Mike Starr (bass), Sean Kinney (drums)
Part of a huge wave of grunge metal in the early ‘90s, alongside Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden, Alice in Chains has made their mark in the music industry. Alice in Chains was formed in Seattle, Washington in 1987 by Jerry Cantrell and Sean Kinney, who acquired bassist Mike Starr and lead vocalist Layne Staley to round out the group. The band comprised of these four members when Alice in Chains recorded their now four time, platinum album, Dirt.
Thematically, Dirt is a well thought out album from a relatively young band. The band chose to focus on topics such as depression, anger, pain, anti-social behavior, and drug addiction. “Would?”, one of the most popular of the band’s songs and the album’s last track, is regarding Andrew Wood, the late lead singer of Mother Love Bone. Wood died of a heroin overdose just two years prior to Dirt’s recording. The song’s writer, Jerry Cantrell wrote the song about Wood because he hated losing a friend, but he also hated that others passed judgment on Wood relating to his addiction.
Instrumentally, Alice in Chains deviates a bit from their first studio album, Facelift. Not that Facelift is a spiritually uplifting album, but it certainly was more upbeat than Dirt. Dirt takes on a despairing tone from beginning to end. There was certainly a slower pace set by Kinney’s drums and less emphasis placed upon guitar solos by Cantrell – although he shines on a couple of the album’s tracks. Normally, this combo wouldn’t appeal to me, but I think the darker, slower music, coupled with the harmonizing vocals by Cantrell and Staley, cemented what we know as Alice in Chains’ sound. Listening to Dirt or really most of the band’s material, I can’t help but think of what Gimli said in The Two Towers while riding through Edoras: “You’ll find more cheer in a graveyard.” I think that sentiment applies here.
Of the four grunge metal bands that I’ve referenced, Alice in Chains has always been my favorite. They aren’t as commercially successful as Pearl Jam or as revered as Nirvana, but I’ve always dug their stuff the most. Maybe it’s because I feel they capture the essence of grunge the best through their captivating, despairing music, and I love the harmonies by Cantrell and Staley. Their voices deliver what I’ve always considered to be the best of grunge. On Dirt, “Hollow” and “Pretty Done” are great examples of Cantrell’s and Staley’s vocals producing Alice in Chains’ harmonic, dreary sound.
Because of its dreary sound, Dirt is not an album that you would play for a pick me up or to get yourself psyched. For me personally, I’ve found the album to be a great accompaniment to a rainy day or I’ll listen to it at work. Working at a desk all day, I’ve discovered Alice in Chains’ music to have a relaxing effect and not be too distracting. Producing relaxing music may not have been the band’s intention, but it relaxes me. If you’re not careful, Dirt can put you in a trance. Alice in Chains isn’t a psychedelic rock band, but there are some elements of psychedelia in “Hate to Feel.”
If it’s more upbeat tunes you desire, check out “Them Bones” and “Dam that River.” “Them Bones” is one of the faster tracks on the album and hosts a slick, progressing riff by Cantrell. Keeping in step with the band’s offbeat vibe on Dirt, the songs end abruptly, and then “Dam that River” will jar you with its intro. These two songs, with their upbeat sound and even guitar solos, are a great start to the album.
Dirt contains many solid tracks that even frequent the radio to this day, but there is one song that’s head and shoulders above the rest: “Rooster.” The origin of the song comes from Cantrell’s father, Jerry Cantrell Sr., who was nicknamed “Rooster” as a child and was known by his nickname during his time in Vietnam. This song is about Rooster’s time and experiences in Vietnam, written from his point of view. When Cantrell Sr. returned home from Vietnam, things had changed with him and with home life for his family. The situation wasn’t ideal, so the family, not Cantrell Sr. left. Jerry Cantrell resented his father at the time for this, but he’s looked back on his childhood and realized that the situation wasn’t good for anyone. According to Cantrell, he and his father hadn’t gotten along very well, and this song marked the beginning of their piecing together their relationship. The first time Cantrell’s father heard the song, he was in the back of the club with his cowboy boots on and his Stetson hat in hand, waving it in the air. Cantrell could see tears in his father’s eyes, so to put it lightly, “Rooster” means a lot to him. If you’ve never heard any Alice in Chains song before, start with “Rooster.”
Alice in Chains enjoyed immediate success with Dirt, and for good reason. Dirt was an influential album on grunge and on metal in general. The band went on an elongated hiatus after 1996, due in part to Staley’s death, but with their strong studio efforts in 2009’s Black Gives Way to Blue and 2013’s The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, the band sounds just as good as they did in their hay day. Currently, the band is working on a new album, and if their two prior albums are any indication of the final product, I’d say it’ll be worth the listen.