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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Alice In Chains: Alice In Chains


1) Grind; 2) Brush Away; 3) Sludge Factory; 4) Heaven Beside You; 5) Head Creeps; 6) Again; 7) Shame In You; 8) God Am; 9) So Close; 10) Nothin' Song; 11) Frogs; 12) Over Now.

Sometimes lovingly called Tripod by the fans due to its cheerful album cover, depicting a world-weary dog with three legs on the front cover. For that matter, there is also a man with three legs on the back, but most people prefer to pay attention to the dog — probably since the dog fits in so well with the overall mood of the record, whereas the three-legged man only adds confusion.

And that mood cannot even be called «depressing». «Depression», after all, is a sort of human condition, an emotional state that can be transmitted from one person to another or, in exceptional cases, transmutated into an art form. The songs on Alice In Chains, on the other hand, go way be­yond this, in that they are purged of emotion, kind of like the actors in a Robert Bresson movie had been purged of acting by their director. If Facelift and particularly Dirt represented the ago­nizing stage, the victim lashing and thrashing in meaningless, but terrifying, fury, Tripod is the paralysis stage — there is still some occasional limb twitching, but mostly the victim just stares into space with beady eyes, hardly capable of caring about anything any longer.

Genre-wise, the record has frequently been categorized as a form of «sludge metal», an associa­tion that is hard to bypass considering that one of the songs is even called 'Sludge Factory'. I am nowhere near close to being an expert on sludge metal, but certainly Tripod bears only a superfi­cial resemblance to the likes of Eyehategod and their brethren, due to Cantrell trading in the me­tallic crunch of his essentially pop riffs for a more complex, less accessible mix of crackling, noi­sy rhythm tracks and downer vibratos. But the proverbial sludge metal I have heard, ranging from truly impressive to utterly corny, makes you want to thrash, break, and kill (in the best of cases — the very jerks who are playing it). Tripod, however, makes you want to be thrashed, broken, and killed, and the sooner the better.

I cannot bring myself to memorize most of the songs, even though some are quite long ('Sludge Factory' clocks in at 7:12, and 'Frogs' overdoes it by one more minute). Yet I cannot forget the overall effect. In terms of absolute heaviness, these melodies do not manage to beat Dirt; but the length, and the «droning» effect of most of them, can wreck the listener's nerves far quicker. And if the songs proper do not do their job well, the extended codas will quickly mop up whatever tra­ces of life are still preserved. The creepiest of these is the doom-drenched ending of 'Frogs', re­plete with calm, creepy, ad-libbed delirium from Staley: ' the wall I scraped... you... I gotta wake... it comes this way... to drown this ache... hate... never gonna fuck with me again... man's own clean slate... don't fuck with me again... makes your eyes dilate... makes you shake...'

Actually, Layne does not even sing all that much; most of the time he just recites the lyrics, and when he does sing, he usually goes for the simplest notes and patterns, or sings in unison with Cantrell. But it is not as if he were disinvolved: on the contrary, he wrote most of the lyrics, and plays just as central a part on the record as before. He simply plays himself — the Layne Staley of this record is probably very much like the real Layne Staley who was, at the same time, enter­ing the last phase of his living nightmare. Even the few songs where he tries to raise his voice, such as the powerful 'Again', it is like witnessing the helpless anger of somebody bound hand and foot, unable to make a single movement and simply going crazy in the head.

Few people will want to listen to this record frequently. To be able to use it as background music, one would have to be an experienced neurosurgeon, and as for concentrated listening, once is enough to understand its power and significance, twice is enough to prove to yourself that your nervous system is working fine, but thrice will be pushing it. It does have a few «breathers» pla­ced in strategic points. The ballad 'Heaven Beside You', continuing the softer line of Cantrell's art as seen before on Jar Of Flies, is beautiful, and the album does not close with the death rattle of 'Frogs', but rather with the light, catchy pop-rock of 'Over Now', with Staley offering a half-hear­ted consolation to the listener: 'Yeah, it's over now, but I can breathe somehow... Guess it's over now, but I seem alive somehow'. Not for long, Layne, not for long.

Tripod does not, and should not, exist on its own; it is a fitting conclusion for the trilogy that began with the battle between life and death on Facelift, continued with death triumphant on Dirt, and now suitably ends with a detailed gloating over the coffins. But each part of the trilogy per­formed its duties as best as it could, and even if Tripod is not the most alluring part of it — how could it even hope to be? — it is the perfect conclusion, and the heart of the listener can grieve over it with the same passion with which the brain is able to rejoice at its marvelous conception and execution. Thumbs up, no question about it.


  1. Hey George, I'm a long time reader of your old music site. I know this probably has nothing to do with Alice in Chains, but I find it interesting you use a Robert Bresson reference. Robert Bresson is probably my favorite filmmaker of all time along with Charlie Chaplin.

    What is your opinion about him? Are you also big on Andrei Tarkovsky, who is considered to be the best filmmaker to come out of Russia? I'm really interested to hear your views on film because you have a very interesting review style for music...

  2. I'm not a big fan of either; on a purely intellectual level, Bresson (who himself was a big influence on Tarkovsky) definitely appeals to me more than Tarkovsky, but overall, this is certainly not "my" style of cinema, although I recognize its importance and uniqueness. But I guess you could predict this answer from my musical reviews as well. Tarkovsky to film is more or less what Peter Hammill is to music. I don't have any religious feelings towards either like some people can have.
    I'd definitely take "Mouchette" over any Tarkovsky film, though.

  3. Yeah I figured you wouldn't be a fan of Tarkovsky. I've never enjoyed watching any of his films. I remember in your Beatles article, you said something about two theories. The Ivory Tower, and The Golden Middle.

    The Ivory Tower resists worldliness for academic preoccupation, so it rarely works with something that could be deemed traditional.

    The Golden Mean on the other hand builds upon traditional structures. The Beatles, like you said were examples of this theory. Same could be said about The Police (probably my favorite band) - giving meaning to old forms of music like Reggae and Punk.

    I'd like to think of Bresson as being part of the Golden Mean. He actually works under very traditional forms of melodrama - for instance a film like pickpocket is basically in essence a crime drama. Yet Bresson gives it his own personal style of minimalist deconstruction. And his films are short and simple enough that they remain accessible (well atleast to me personally). The other film artists I would classify as falling under Golden Mean: Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Bunuel, Charlie Chaplin, and Akira Kurosawa.

    While the Ivory Tower consists of people like Andrei Tarkovsky, Fellini, Antonioni (God help me), and experimental artists like Stan Brakhage.

    Though I understand greatly your non-fandom for the likes of Bresson. Thanks for answering my question and good luck with your music blog! :)

  4. Oh shit. Forgot to ask. Just one more question if you don't mind...out of curiosity, from your personal views, which filmmakers do you enjoy and hold in high regard?

  5. Quite a few. All the ones you mentioned (I'd actually put at least early Fellini, circa La Strada / Cabiria / maybe even 8 1/2 time under the Golden Mean as well) certainly make the grade, along with... oh I don't know, the question is waaaaay too broad.

  6. Hi

    I've been a reader of your old reviews site for years as well, and I share your appreciation for Alice in Chains, to me clearly the best grunge band.
    There's just one thing: While I usually tend to agree with your judgmenet on best album or best songs, in the case of AIC however, my opinion on best song differs. To me, there are 2 candidates: Man in the Box of Facelift, and Down in a Hole of Dirt.

    As for the film conversation going on: Wouldn't you say that Kubrick qualifies for the "Golden Mean" as well?

  7. Austrian: Opinions on best songs are like statistical margins of error anyway. I like 'Man In The Box' far more now than I used to.

    Kubrick - yes, certainly, although I think that "Space Odyssey" has dated REALLY badly, and, apart from certain iconic images and ideas, is almost unwatchable other than a Sixties curio. But nearly everything before and after, sure thing.

  8. Here's where I and a lot of other Alice fans diverge: I don't care for this album. At all, really. Like, I even like Black Gives Way to Blue and The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here better than this. I find it interesting that in your reviews for those records you decry what you feel is a lack of soul and personality, yet you praise this record that is essentially the worst of those two qualities when compared with the rest of AIC's output. Nothing on this record sticks with me. The delicious hooks and melodies of Facelift, Dirt and Jar of Flies are nonexistent. Sure, this was intentional, but it just doesn't work for me. THIS is the definition of a soulless AIC record in my mind. The whole thing is just kind of "meh", like the cover, and I don't find the irony of my appraisal to dilute my opinion. If anything, this album doesn't have a leg to stand on.

  9. Due to the first track being sung by Jerry, I had the impression that Layne was absent for a large part of the recording due to his addiction. As a result, I thought the three legged theme of the artwork (there is also a 3 legged stool, iirc), was a subtle way of saying that, with Layne so drugged out, the band was like a 3 legged dog. Obviously, he wrote the lyrics as you say, so that cannot be literally true, but I still think it was a subtle, if not unconscious, message.