ALICE IN CHAINS: ALICE IN CHAINS (1995)
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 , 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: '...off 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.