No band is an island. Every single one is influenced by artists that came before them. And if you look at the artists currently touring the hard rock/metal circuit in the US today, all their lists of influences will include one band in particular: Alice in Chains.
For a band whose heyday was a scant six years in the early nineties, Alice in Chains packed ten times the career’s worth of action and music into them. Though AIC only did two major tours during that period, they charted enough songs, got on enough film soundtracks, and made enough memorable videos to cement themselves as bards of a generation. The only way you can do that, without touring yourself into a ditch, is to have incredible songwriting skills, and no album highlights this better than their seminal 1992 classic, Dirt.
And if the first thing you heard in your head just now was AIC vocalist Layne Staley screaming “Ah!” while the chugging, off-kilter riff of opening track “Them Bones” roared behind him, then you are a true aficionado of this album. Hot on the heels of their acoustic EP Sap, Dirt was a clarion call to everyone that hard rock was about to start it’s next chapter. While Nirvana converted the teeny-boppers of the early nineties to noise rock’s gleeful appeal, and Pearl Jam provided a soundtrack to introspective college kids, Alice in Chains’ brooding, sprawling sophomore LP seemed to tap into everyone’s dark, neglected side. Songs like “Dirt” and “Rooster” took listeners on a path that explored emotions and personal situations with raw clarity, while blasters like “Dam That River” and lead single “Would?” gave everyone permission to fly their freak flag. And with Dirt certified four times platinum, clearly everyone was listening.
Dirt was undeniably AIC’s most passionate album, recorded at a time when record labels invested in bands and their potential, giving them the latitude to craft their sound without the burden of “the industry” weighing down on them; they were just responsible for producing hits. AIC’s debut LP Facelift was a sleeper success, with radio hits like “We Die Young” and “Sea of Sorrow”, not to mention the MTV hit “Man in the Box.” Their interim acoustic EP Sap introduced their fans to another side of the band, so their label, Columbia, was eager to see what they could do. And AIC guitarist and principle songwriter Jerry Cantrell did not disappoint. Dirt was a deft mix of heavy yet radio friendly tunes that featured his signature riffing, but also capitalized on the dual harmonies of he and Staley, creating an evocative Beatles-esque vocal quality over their dark music. Cantrell could easily alternate between discordant guitar structures with shimmering pop hooks, injecting penetrating solos while maintaining a clarity of songwriting that was never longwinded. And though Dirt was clearly Cantrell’s record, Staley rose to the occasion, his searing vocals on “Rain When I Die” etching out his legacy in stone.
Dirt also highlighted the stunning, earth-shaking abilities of drummer Sean Kinney. Though he is perhaps best known for his more musical work on AIC’s Jar of Flies, his thunderous performance on this album is Dirt’s secret weapon. Kinney understood how to make certain hits identify a piece of work. After the sudden stop of “Them Bones”, Kinney intros follow-up “Dam That River” with a definitive hi-hat/snare crack. Yes, it is a simple move. But I saw Alice in Chains in concert a few years ago, opening with “Them Bones,” and when I heard that welcome crack, performed as instantaneously as on Dirt itself, I could finally confirm my belief that Kinney was one of the best drummers walking the earth.
Not walking the earth anymore are founding members Layne Staley and bassist Mike Starr, who passed away in 2002 and 2011 respectively. One of the consequences of record label indulgence in the early nineties was Staley’s growing addiction to heroin, which not only kept the band off the road, but perhaps slowed their output, and maybe even greater heights of artistic achievement. Staley was never shy about his demons, writing about them expressly in songs like “Junkhead” and “God Smack”. Though measured now as cautionary tales, Staley could never live up to the lofty goals of his songs, exemplified by his diminishing output to subsequent AIC releases, and ultimately his death from a drug overdose. His body was discovered two weeks later, a chilling reminder of the isolation, despair, and loneliness Staley wrote about with such delicacy and profundity on Dirt.
Fans of Alice in Chains have much to celebrate though, as the band reunited in the wake of Staley’s death, recruiting new lead vocalist William Duvall, and releasing Black Gives Way to Blue in 2009, and The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here just last May. Though fans will debate the legitimacy of these albums as true AIC records, this author can at least attest that Duvall does the old songs justice, belting out the classics with a ferocious abandon that could only come from someone who loved them like a fan would.
Without a doubt, Alice in Chains’ Dirt will stand the test of time as an album of unrelenting brutality, elegance, and tragedy. Its pop hooks, crushing riffs, and mournful vocal orchestrations have served as a blueprint for an entire generation of hard rock and metal bands. Its popularity, both then and now, will forever be a touchstone on the relationship between artist and record label, that a well-maintained one can yield both harrowing calamity, and pure, unbridled beauty.