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Monday, April 18, 2011

Alice in Chains, "Dirt"

Alice in Chains
Columbia (1992)
1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die + 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

Many a musician has found themselves wound up in an addiction to heroin, including several we’ve already looked at. Some have found inspiration in the drug, and so many more have found destruction. I would argue that Alice in Chains was more profoundly influenced by heroin than any other band in history. Two of the members who were with the band during “Dirt” later died in overdoses. As horrible as it sounds, heroin also served as a muse for the group’s best music.

If you listen to both “Dirt” and the band’s debut, “Facelift,” you notice an audible change in attitude. Both albums focus heavily on drug use, but “Facelift” (although never happy per se) takes a more rock ‘n’ roll attitude towards addiction. On “Dirt,” the band seems to realize that these habits would eventually result in their demise, and as a result, the mood is even darker than before.

The songs on drugs and mortality are the most prominent. “Them Bones” kicks off the album with looming chords and a fantastic, dark solo from guitarist Jerry Cantrell. “Rain When I Die” and “Hate To Feel” showcase vocalist Layne Staley’s brutal honesty on the matter, the latter featuring him lamenting “All this time I swore I’d never be like my old man.”

Even when the band didn’t focus on the drugs, the subject matter was just as dark and equally based in truth. Single “Rooster” details Cantrell’s father’s time in Vietnam, the unusually confrontational “Dam That River” is Cantrell’s reaction to drummer Sean Kinney smashing a glass tabletop over his head during a fight, and “Would?” (which features an amazing opening bass line from Mike Starr) is an ode to deceased Mother Love Bone vocalist Andrew Wood.

Aside from personal experience, the quality that made Alice in Chains great was the chemistry between Cantrell and Staley, who shared similar struggles, which allowed Cantrell to write guitar parts that were perfect accompaniments to Staley’s prose, plus the harmonies that the two shared.

The chemistry would be short lived however. Despite releasing several EPs and one more full length album, the band never lived up to its earlier work. Staley would separate from the band and die in 2002. Starr would die in 2011. Cantrell and Kinney are clean and released a new AIC record in 2009. I’m honestly glad that those two turned their lives around, but it is with guilt that I confess that the group’s best work came under the supervision of addiction.

INTERESTING FACT: “Intro (Dream Sequence)” is a short track based around a riff Cantrell would play to annoy his fellow band mates. He agreed to never play it again if it made the album.

Them Bones by Alice in Chains on Grooveshark

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