Dirt – Alice In Chains (1992)

Dirt album cover
Dirt album cover

The 1992 was a great year for me. I just got my foot in the door of a career and got my first new car (one that I could be proud of). It was a great year for rock, depending on what side of it you were on. The Whitesnakes and Iron Maidens of the world were suddenly made obsolete as grunge continued to sweep the nation. Suddenly it seemed grunge was the new heavy metal. After Nirvana’s Nevermind established a template that many others followed, grunge became a easily recognizable sound that was rather consistent (if not sometimes predictable).

One of the bands that distinguished itself from Nirvana and others was Alice In Chains. Besides having the standard ’70s heavy metal influences and rock influences, Alice in Chains brought a subtle blues rock flavor to grunge. Other bands like Stone Temple Pilots would follow suit, but the thing that made Alice in Chains stand out was how dark and deeply disturbing its lyrical inspiration was coming from. The scruffiness of the genre would have made Creedence Clearwater Revival or Neil Young proud, but mainstream rock had not been so dark since bands like Ozzy Osborne and Dio came to prominence.

Alice In Chains would refine their sound on their second release to the point of establishing a new benchmark for the still new grunge movement. Where their debut Facelift from 1990 was somewhat unfocused by comparison, Dirt their second effort was as close to a masterpiece as the quartet would ever come.

Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell were both guitar players who’s voices gave Alice In Chains a distinctive ghostly growl. Cantrell, the band’s primary songwriter was battling a drug addiction among other problems and these demons were exercised in his songwriting. Its been said that the band was high on various drugs during the recording of Dirt. Whatever it was, the effect was music from a deeper emotional well than what their peers drew from.

The old devil worshiping stereotypes of ’70s heavy metal looked as if they would be revamped on the surface. With its surreal and somewhat zombie undead cover art, Dirt looked every bit as scary as any old Black Sabbath cover art. There was substance to its dark overtones thanks to lyrics about rape, drug abuse and violence. These were usually subjects reserved for rap albums.

In addition to pushing all the right power chord buttons, Dirt featured wicked harmonies from Cantrell and Staley that made for an oddly blusey effect. There was no getting around it, Dirt was the new Nevermind of it’s day as Alice In Chains went on to surpass Nirvana’s own Incesticide that year. No less than 5 successful singles darted the charts and kept Dirt alive on the radio for well over a year.

Of the albums songs, “Would” was a special favorite of mine. It best exemplified Alice In Chain’s mastery of melody and drama fused with teen angst. The kind of slow wind up tension early in the song coupled with the explosive energy of Cantrell’s wail made for one of the new decades best rock songs.

There were plenty of other great songs, so many actually that most of the album was on some hard rock radio station playlist at one time or another. “The Rooster”and “Them Bones” were broadcast favorites for good reason.”Them Bones” for instance featured some of the best melodic screaming of the grunge era.

1992 ended up being a high point for Alice In Chains and to some extent grunge in general. From that success other flannel shirt wearing bands emerged from beyond Seattle. One of them, Stone Temple Pilots would follow a similar musical trajectory, but with all the drug induced dark removed. The convergence of youthful angst, drugs and metal came together like a rare alignment of planets on Dirt and slowly dissipated as Alice In Chains never quite reached the same plateau again.


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