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Saturday, February 6, 2010

Alice In Chains: Dirt


1) Them Bones; 2) Dam That River; 3) Rain When I Die; 4) Down In A Hole; 5) Sickman; 6) Rooster; 7) Junkhead; 8) Dirt; 9) God Smack; 10) Untitled (Iron Gland); 11) Hate To Feel; 12) Angry Chair; 13) Would?

Intellect, as soon as we acquire it to a sufficient degree, tells us that the ultimate form of «scary» is «subtle»; that properly done «suspense» is far more nerve-wrecking than in-yer-face horror and brutality; and that this works for all sorts of art, from literature to movies to music. Exceptions to this rule are few and in between — particularly in the world of rock'n'roll, where one oddball al­bum by madman Syd Barrett can easily outscare the entire output of any death metal band. But exceptions do occur, and, whenever I think of them, Dirt by Alice In Chains is the one example that springs to mind quicker than any other one.

Digging deep under the surface of Facelift, you could still smell traces of the lightweight hedo­nism of Eighties' metal, especially in its funkier numbers. On Dirt, Cantrell and Staley wipe these out to the last tiny spot. If there is one second of «light» on this record, it is a small fourty-second long interlude that now goes under the title 'Iron Gland' (it used to be altogether anonymous) — a collage of heavy riffs, shouts, and noises that sort of pays tribute to/mocks Black Sabbath's 'Iron Man'. Equally as heavy and brutal as the rest of the record, it is intentionally silly. And nothing else on Dirt is silly.

At the forefront of Dirt lies the drug problem: around half of the songs deal with it explicitly or implicitly, with Cantrell contributing the gloomy melodies and Staley describing his addiction with lyrics that may not be great poetry, but nor do they need to be great poetry when placed in their particular context. For instance, 'what in God's name have you done — stick your arm for some real fun!' has little poetic might all by itself, but is deeply empowered through Layne's deli­very — somehow you know he is not singing about somebody else — and Cantrell's nightmarish, «wobbly» wah-wah riff, the perfect musical impersonation of all that horrid muck circulating through your blood.

The most evil irony lies in how catchy all this stuff is. Twelve songs with excellent rock melodies — memorable riffs, catchy choruses, suitable song length, moderate amount of complexity. If only those were run through a different framework, Brill Building might have been glad to keep some of those. My only minor complaint is that, the farther we proceed, the more obvious is the band's way too heavy reliance on Black Sabbath and Zeppelin: the title track, for instance, bor­rows parts of its melody from 'Electric Funeral', and Staley's 'Hate To Feel' reworks the famous descending riff from 'Dazed And Confused'. Nevertheless, these are really reworkings rather than straightforward rip-offs, and what can there be against a little variation on a good theme?

Launching straight into battle with another short, compact (2:30) single, cheerfully entitled 'Them Bones' where Staley impressively plays the Hamlet of the grunge generation, the band proceeds to box the listener into the corner with one brutal punch after another. 'Dam That River', written by Cantrell after getting into a fight with drummer Sean Kinney, is essentially about venting one's frustration, but I would certainly hate someone venting his frustration over me with the kind of force contained in the song's riffs — this is some of the meanest, leanest, earth-rattling-est riffage ever put on record by anyone. The wah-wah riff of 'Rain When I Die' is the purest distillation of evil, and 'Sickman' was the result of Staley asking Cantrell to write him 'the sickest tune he could write' — personally, I think 'Rain When I Die' is sicker, but that is just a matter of opinion.

The album does have its moments of silence and subtlety that also work beautifully: 'Rooster', be­ginning with mildly psychedelic phasing on the acoustic guitars and falsetto harmonies, only gra­dually develops into a disturbed, terrifying picture of Vietnamese hell. Not that one requires to know that Cantrell wrote the song about his father's wartime experiences; it could as well refer to Staley himself, because, as he wails 'here comes The Rooster — you know he ain't gonna die!' through your speakers, it is possible to get the feeling that, perhaps, despite all the nightmarish at­mosphere, there may be hope ahead. Is he, or ain't he? But then the very next song is 'Junkhead': 'What's my drug of choice? — Well, what have you got?' No, he probably ain't.

Dirt may be «metal» or «grunge», but, first and foremost, it is simply one of the Nineties' greatest works of pure art, a straightforward depiction of inner torture and helplessness, an attempt at a screaming public confession that sends modesty and subtlety packing — with no regrets. Not eve­ryone is going to like it. Some will shy away from its brutality under the pretext of disliking hea­vy metal in general. Others will want to denounce its honesty as banal self-pitying. Some may say that it serves a purely pragmatic purpose of turning people off drugs; others may say that people are just as likely to be turned onto drugs, seduced by Staley's romantic torture. And they are all welcome to say it: Dirt is a record to be talked about, to be discussed for as long as possible, and the more controversy it stirs, the better it is. And yes, a big thumbs up from the very bottom of my conscience, which has never had any problems with drugs but which has been forced to relate through the sheer unprecedented power of the album.


  1. This is the real deal. Death music that you can sing along to. Every song has AT LEAST one melody that won't leave your head for the rest of the day. And the lyrical imagery? Wow.

  2. Wonderful review. Your AiC reviews on the old website piqued me enough to want to check out the band and I cannot but agree all the way with your views on Dirt.

    George, I have a question: do you think in the current situation, of musicians who have day jobs to sustain themselves, we will see another Layne Staley in a long time? He surrendered his life to music and drugs in equal proportion and while I cannot wish that fate on anybody, least of all my favourite musicians, I have to, like most people, who love this album, admit it made for a masterpiece that could hold its own emotionally with the best rock music out there. Rock music seems to have arrived to saner pastures these days but does that also mean such bone chilling expressions of creativity are now outside the reach of the medium? And while I frame all these questions, do you, with your exposure to humungous amounts of music, actually know of a Layne Staley-type guy in the current rock scene?

    1. Madan,

      If I knew of a Layne Staley-type guy in the current rock scene, chances are you would probably know him, too. But even if there isn't one, this isn't necessarily a bad thing in the grand scheme of stuff.

  3. Ugh, "Iron Gland" ..... I love Dirt as much as the next AIC fan, but for me the record grinds to a COMPLETE halt with this track. It rebounds with the very next song (which varies depending on what year your copy was pressed in and what format), but I can't stand it. I've nothing against a band behaving in a playful manner, even one as dower as Alice In Chains, but not on this record. It's quite obvious that the nature of this album isn't meant to be taken as a joke, so why inject a novelty song into it, even if it's only forty seconds? I'm not part of the school that all music must have some ironic or cynical twist to be considered "great", so the inclusion of "Iron Gland" baffles me.

    As for the rest of Dirt, as you say, George, this is a masterpiece. I much prefer a lack of subtlety if it can help me empathize with the lyrics when considering rock music. I'm also a Soundgarden fan, but their music has never stuck with me the same way AIC's has because of how abstract and pretentious the lyrics and themes are in Chris Cornell's writing.