Published on September 28th, 2017 | by Justin G.
25th Anniversary Spotlight – Alice in Chains: Dirt
By guest contributor Jason Myers
It’s been a quarter of a century since the hard rock and metal scene experienced its last major transformation and Alice In Chains were a pivotal catalyst for that change. While thrash’s “Big 4” (Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax) had arguably peaked — the four horsemen of Seattle’s grunge movement (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains) were skyrocketing in popularity and cultural relevance.
Out of those scene leaders, it was Alice in Chains who was embraced more organically by most metal heads, in large part due to their 1992 masterpiece Dirt. Darker in theme and tone than their Facelift debut, Dirt captured a group of young musicians facing their demons and exposing them in more candid fashion than most of us were used to witnessing. Rather than hide heroin use as many ‘80s rock stars had, vocalist Layne Staley penned no less than three songs (“Sickman,” “God Smack” and “Junkhead”) about his struggle with addiction. This lyrical diary was a decision Layne reportedly regretted when fans mistook his warnings as a glorification of the narcotic prison he was trapped in and would ultimately succumb to.
Drug lore and angst aside, the real star of Alice in Chains’ monster sophomore album was guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s timeless songwriting and doomy, yet nimble, six-string creativity. Cantrell’s ability to think outside of traditional tunings and timings while still propelling each song forward with groove and heft put him in a different league than his flannel-clad peers. Those skills combined with a trademark vocal harmony style—chops likely honed as the president of his high school choir— gave Cantrell’s Dirt a unique edge in the highly competitive early ‘90s hard rock scene.
Anchored by the rock-solid tribal groove of founding drummer Sean Kinney and the distinctly overdriven Spector bass lines of Mike Starr, the first 60 seconds of the Singles single “Would?” capture the vibe of 1990s alt rock better than any other minute in the history of that storied decade. Sinister songs like “Angry Chair” (and the video that promoted it) made sense to those of us who were weaned on satanic metal while breakaway hit “Rooster” rewarded the band with mainstream stardom. As my Icarus Witch writing partner Quinn Lukas put it, “Suddenly it was cool to listen to commercial radio or watch MTV in the afternoon. There was finally something for us to latch onto in the rotation.” [Ed. note: Lukas had the privilege of jamming onstage with Cantrell and longtime Alice in Chains bassist Mike Inez this year as part of the Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy Camp that he’s involved with].
Clocking in just shy of an hour, the 12 songs (+ 1 bizarre untitled track unofficially dubbed “Iron Gland” thanks to Tom Araya’s random guest vocal appearance) are best enjoyed in the traditional fashion: hitting start at the beginning of the album and rocking your way through the ride. However, with individual cuts this deep, you could literally drop the needle anywhere on the LP and find yourself in the middle of a masterful slice of hard rock history.
Jason Myers is the bassist and founder of Icarus Witch.