ALICE IN CHAINS: DIRT (1992)
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,
Launching straight into battle with another short, compact () 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.