Pain In Recorded Form: Alice In Chains – Dirt

September 29th, 1992.  By the time this day rolled around the Grunge scene was at the top of the music heap.  Just a year earlier Soundgarden released the album that got them attention, Badmotorfinger; Pearl Jam, having risen from the ashes of Mother Love Bone, released their uber-boring debut, Ten; and of course, Shitvana released their craptastic shitsterpiece, Nevermind.  But on this day, Alice In Chains, on the heels of their 1990 debut, Facelift, and their 1991 EP, Sap, released their second album, equal parts Sabbath worship in music and lyrical documentation of the heroin addiction that would eventually claims the lives of two of the band’s members, Dirt.  Upon it’s release was probably THE darkest album to be released in the mainstream at that point in time, with most songs blatantly about frontman Layne Staley’s radiply growing heroin addiction.  But lets make one thing clear before I go any further, none of the guys in the band were squeaky clean.  This wouldn’t be a Seattle band if any of them were, right?  Hell, Jerry Cantrell admitted to taking Xanax during the recording of Dirt for severe clinical depression and was also drinking heavily.

Of course, heroin wasn’t the only subject matter tackled on the album, thanks to the handful of tracks written entirely by guitarist Jerry Cantrell.  In fact, one of those songs, “Them Bones” is the album’s heavier-than-fuck opener.  Written in a very Soundgarden-like 7/8 time, not even Kim or Chris on their best days could come up with a riff as crunchy as this.  Besides, it’d mean playing more than just single notes!  Add to that morbid lyrics about fearing death and a badass solo but Cantrell and you pretty much have a taste for what was to come.  This would definitely sound NOTHING like Facelift.  “Dam The River” kicks the door down immediately after “Them Bones” with even more drop-D Sabbath-style Metal.  It’s amusing when Cantrell explains that the song was written in retaliation for drummer Sean Kinney breaking a coffee table over his head and knocking him out because he wouldn’t shut the fuck up.  Musicians take note – this could be you.

Image result for alice in chains 1992                            Image result for alice in chains 1992

Alright, here’s the first set of Layne Staley lyrics, “Rain When I Die”.  There are a lot of things happening in the lyrics that’ve led to many interpretations from Layne predicting he’ll before he can even get help to him letting someone take the fall for something he did (a drug deal maybe?) to him claiming that even junkies have feelings.  That last one will forever be debatable as far as I’m concerned.  The music?  Pure Sabbath worship.  So many slow, snaky whammy bar dips, crying out throughout many layered guitar tracks.  It’s almost like the song’s an “Iron Man” tribute to Iommi himself, backed up by an absolutely solid bass vamp by Mike Starr.

“Sickman” is such a HUGE track, switching from a frantic riff that just makes you panic to a slow waltz tempo at multiple points.  Fuck, it sure makes me anxious while thinking about it.  But the real high point to this track is Layne’s layered vocal harmonies at the midpoint.  To most fans, the centerpiece to any classic Chains track is hearing Layne’s stacked harmonies.  They were always surprisingly well thought out and added almost a morbid sense of finally to such a doomy backdrop.  But this is also why Jerry Cantrell was and still is a GOD.  Taking a break from themes of morbidity “Rooster” is the most epic track on the record.  Written entirely by Cantrell, the song was a tribute to his father, a Vietnam veteran.  He was estranged from his father for years and this was his way beginning to mend fences.  It clearly worked: his father is interviewed on camera for the intro to the music video.  And Jerry plays the part of his father in the video.  It’s actually very powerful:

Following up the band’s big “Kumbaya” moment we’re thrown right back into heroin hell with “Junkhead”.  I don’t think I need to explain what’s going on here: “What’s my drug of choice?/What’ve you got?/I don’t go broke/And I do it a lot”.  But it almost sounds like Layne was letting everyone know that he’d become one with the fact that he was junkie and didn’t care, especially when he sings that “You cant understand a users mind/But try with your books and degrees/If you let yourself go and open your mind/I’ll bet you could do it like me and it ain’t so bad”.  It’s almost as if we was writing his own eulogy.

Following that is the snaky title track.  It’s yet another Cantrell-style exercise in Sabbath worship, but with an atmospheric tone that is almost unpredictable, even if it also sounds like the end of something is coming.  It’s pure depression.  Of all the tracks on here, especially “Angry Chair”, this to me is the track that just oozes pure emotional pain.  When first heard Layne sing the lines “I want you to kill me and dig me under/I want to live no more” I totally believed it.  Just remember, heroin isn’t necessarily the type of drug that makes you energetic like cocaine.  It’s supposed to provide a supposed euphoric effect but as far as I’m concerned it just makes people more depressed and makes them more withdrawn, or more of an asshole.  Used for pain my ass!  The final moments, in which the tempo gradually slows down, reminds me of someone going to sleep…or fading away.  Was that was Layne was thinking when he heard what Jerry came up with?

Now, long before some piece of shit New England band took their name from an Alice song and even stole their logo, “God Smack” was another track about heroin.  It’s admittedly not one of the best tracks on here but I definitely love the main riff.  Remember me mentioning an “Iron Man” tribute in “Rain When I Die”?  It happens again in the short interlude track “Iron Gland”, featuring vocals by Tom Araya.  “Hate To Feel” is the first of two tracks written entirely by Layne Staley, music and everything.  The riff is very bluesy, yet very Sabbath inspired, based on it’s single note main riff, the backdrop to lyrics in which Layne blames his father for his addiction.  In later years he claimed that he’d try to get sober and his father would come by asking him for drugs, so it’s possible.

The next, and last track written completely by Staley is one of THE most memorable and breath taking tracks, “Angry Chair”.  I did say “Dirt” was the track with the most pain, but “Angry Chair” was the track where Layne not only describes in detail the horrible withdrawal symptoms of heroin, but also gives to clear of a picture of his own mental state.  It’s such a jaw dropping lyric, even if he is seemingly predicting his own end as he sings “Loneliness is not a phase/Field of pain is where I graze/Serenity is far away…”.  Considering it’s one of the first songs Layne ever wrote entirely it’s a masterpiece.

“Down In A Hole” is one of the darkest love songs Cantrell or anyone for that matter has ever written.  His harmonizing with Layne is spot on before Layne takes off on his own.  Unsurprisingly, he was apparently high as fuck while recording his vocals for this one.  What is kind of surprising is how he was clearly able to keep himself together while recording his masterful triple harmony lines near the end.  I’d show you the video but it honestly is lame so here’s the song.

Originally written for the Singles soundtrack and therefore recorded before the band even went into the studio for Dirt, “Would?” is the albums closing track.  Also written by Jerry, the song was written about Andrew Wood, the lead singer of Mother Love Bone who died of a heroin overdose on the eve of the band’s debut album release.  This is actually very significant to not just Dirt‘s roots but to the Grunge scene’s future.  Many people will say that before Wood’s overdose the music that came out of Seattle was for the most part nowhere near as sad and angry as it would become.  In fact, it was said the he was full of life and energy nd everyone loved the guy.  So therefore his death took a toll on a lot of people.  One of the reasons Cantrell was on Xanax was apparently to help him cope with this.

As far as his lyrics were concerned, it was pointed at those who pass judgement on others for their mistakes, as bought up in the final chorus line “So I made a big mistake/Try to see it once my way”.  I guess I can see his view but I also can’t.  Maybe that was the point, being I’ve never touched a single drug in my life.  The music, and incredible display of soft and loud dynamics while never losing it’s aggression before Layne closes out the song, and this drug fueled shitstorm of an album by asking us “If I would could you?”.

The events following the release of Dirt could be comparable to see a legitimate prophecy live out.  In early 1993 bassist Mike Starr was fired from the band for his own drug problems and replaced by Ozzy bassist Mike Inez.  After a while the band stopped touring regularly after dropping off an opening spot with Metallica and rumors of Layne’s drug use ran rampant.  After the release of their 1995 self titled album and their 1996 MTV Unplugged appearance, where Layne looked like a fucking pink haired corpse, he went into hiding.  Aside from the band’s Music Bank boxset, no one really heard from Layne again, until he was found dead of his apartment in Seattle in 2002.  The autopsy report determined that he died two weeks before he was even discovered, making his death date April 5th, the exact day Cobain offed himself eight years earlier.  Mike Starr was found dead in 2011.

Dirt was Alice In Chains’ masterpiece.  It was as dark and heavy as any Heavy Metal album could be.  And Layne Staley’s lyrics were honest.  He didn’t play with words and guessing games with you, like that jackass Cobain did.  He told it like it was…and most likely as it was happening.  it was mentioned after he died but with Dirt, Layne seemed to really be prophesizing his own death, while Jerry Cantrell was his doomy, sludgy, pallbearer.

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Chris Cornell And The REAL Death Of Grunge

As I write this today, it’s probably been a few hours now since the funeral for Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, who literally shocked the shit out of everyone by hanging himself with a resistance band in his Detroit hotel just hours after he got off stage with the band.  How the fuck could Chris Cornell do this to himself, and why??  To everyone he seemed like the LAST person to be tempted to do such a thing.  A lot of things have been coming to light since the news passed, such as the fact that he’d apparently been taking the anti-anxiety drug Ativan.  One of the things that triggered Chris’s wife to called security on him in the first place was that, according to her, Chris sounded very slurred on the phone.  One side effect of a benzo such as Ativan is a drowsiness that happens to last for a long time.

But there clearly was no fucking way that Ativan alone could cause anyone to just say “fuck it” and hang themselves.  As I discovered the aspects of his horrid childhood in preparation for writing this post, including becoming a full blown junkie at just 13, having full access to heroin and prescription pills, we all discovered yesterday that there were visible signs of fresh track marks on his arms.  If he just relapsed recently it had to be while on the road, and therefore there could be no way his wife would’ve known.  Even creepier, in a way, is that during their set closer, “Slaves and Bulldozers”, Chris slickly slipped in lines from Led Zeppelin’s classic “In My Time Of Dying”.  No shit.  Here’s the proof:

Yeah, I’m sure him requesting to the band to actually play the actual song would’ve clearly raised a few eyebrows.  Lets face it, he probably knew what he was going to do.  But I’m not writing about this to discuss the details of his death, or his apparent life long struggle with drugs and depression.  You can clearly find that anywhere else.  I’m here to write about Chris Cornell the ICON.  Because like it or not, depending on who you ask he was probably more of an icon in music than that little bitch Cobain EVER was.  Why?  Because he literally was one of the originals.

There sadly is a lot of historical significance to his death, that can easily be compared to the day Soundgarden originally broke up a little more than twenty years ago.  Again, depending on whose opinion you ask for, especially the mainstream media shitheads, Grunge died when Cobain offed himself in 1994, causing record labels everywhere to find as many copycats as they could, or face the unnecessary fear of losing money quicker than Wall Street on Black Monday.  But ask anyone else, and they’ll most likely say that Grunge died the day Soundgarden called it quits because they were one of just two bands remaining from the original six band from Seattle to not just manage to stay together, but actually find success.

Long before Shitvana was even a thought Soundgarden was formed by Cornell, Kim Thayil and Hiro Yamamoto in Seattle in 1984.  In 1986 the band were featured on a compilation called Deep Six.  The first release by C/Z Records, it showcase the burgeoning Seattle sound featuring multiple songs from them, The Melvins, Skin Yard, Green River, Malfunkshun, and The U-Men.  While Chris’ immense vocal talents were not yet fully developed, you can clearly hear signs of things to come on this original version of “All Your Lies”, which was later re-recorded for their SST Records debut album, Ultramega OK.

Before I go any further I need to make something clear.  I truly feel now, as an older man of 33, that the term Grunge itself was blown out of proportion too much.  I understand the according to musical standards Grunge is supposed to be the combination of Punk and Metal, with each band leaning toward either genre over the other.  But I honestly feel like Grunge was just a scene, not a musical style.  Hell, just listen to any of the Big Four: Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice In Chains and Perl Jam.  Fuck the visions of flannel and stories of rampant heroin use among all of them – did ANY of them truly SOUND alike??  If you’re smart then you don’t need me to tell you that the answer is hell fuck no!  Especially in the case of Soundgarden and Alice!

But in the history books, it was Soundgarden who was the first Seattle band from that scene to be signed​ to a major label before any of them.  And while most people clearly weren’t ready for them just yet, it was clear that Cornell was a GOD on the mic, lending to a sound that was easily comparable to Robert Plant fronting Black Sabbath.

For example!

Did you hear that beginning scream blending in beautifully with Kim Thayil’s guitar feedback??  Just tell me that wasn’t EPIC as fuck!!  There are many Soundgarden/Grunge purists who favor Louder Than Love over the later albums, and it’s easy to see why.  But…they clearly didn’t listen to him, as Henry Rollins said in 2000, “peel the paint off walls!” during the song “Jesus Christ Pose” off their 1991 breakthrough album, Badmotorfinger.  Go straight to the 5:13 mark to here the wail of a GOD.

That’s the other most important quality of Soundgarden and especially Chris.  Dave Navarro just yesterday stated that the band were one of the rare few bands of the late 80’s to come out that had both talent AND substance.  The substance?  Chris’s lyrics.  The song “Jesus Christ Pose” is clearly a song about religious hypocrisy, as he sang:

And you stare at me
In your Jesus Christ pose
Arms held out
Like you’ve been carrying a load
And you swear to me
You don’t want to be my slave

But you’re staring at me
Like I, like I need to be saved
Saved, like I need to be saved
Saved

It was lyrics like these that made Soundgarden the thinking man’s metal band in the early 90’s.  But it didn’t end there.  Take this little sample from the song “4th of July” off their 1994 masterpiece, Superunknown:

Pale in the flare light
The scared light cracks and disappears
And leads the scorched ones here
And everywhere no one cares
The fire is spreading
And no one wants to speak about it
Down in the hole
Jesus tries to crack a smile
Beneath another shovel load

I know even Layne Staley or Jerry Cantrell couldn’t even think of lyrics like that.  Add the sludgy riffs and it sounds like a song not even a band like Crowbar could come up with!

This right here is pure Sabbath worship!

That’s what made someone like Chris Cornell a true icon of the Seattle scene, the so-called Grunge scene.  He was THE total package.  He had the talent, the substance, the deep thoughts.  His vocal talents alone were a legitimate RARITY in rock music, with a powerful wail that rivaled ANYONE’s singing during the 90’s.  His lyrics were thoughtful, his riffs could absolutely crush you, they could be so dreamy, and he could even weld them together seamlessly and it’d all make total sense.  Here’s one of my favorite tracks off Superunknown, called “Limowreck”, as an example.

It’s a shame that it took this album and the single “Blackhole Sun”(which I’m blatantly staying away from here) for Soundgarden to finally get the recognition they deserved, ten years after they formed and long after everybody that came along AFTER them got recognition.  This is actually important because Superunknown was released just a month before Cobain died, signaling the beginning of the slow death of what had become a trend so big that flannel was even being worn at fashion shows and sold at even Macy’s.  If you’re old enough to remember seeing the “Gen X” section in Macy’s then congratulations – you’re old!

As said earlier, a sizeable number will tell you Grunge died the day Soundgarden broke up in the spring of 1997.  They were one of the two original surviving bands from the Deep Six era, the other being The Melvins (Thank King Buzzo for introducing Chris and Kim to Drop D tuning).  So while it was a major shock when Soundgarden got back together in 2010, after Chris did several albums with Audioslave (Chris with the jerkoffs from Rage Against The Machine) and an abortion of a solo album with Timbaland, his sudden death is now of even more historical significance than ever.  Yeah, this is beyond tragic and my thoughts go out to Chris’s family.  But from a musical standpoint, we all can sadly say now that if you were to give Grunge a real death date it would be May 18th, 2017, as this so far is the ultimate Heavy Metal tragedy of the year unless something far worse happens.

Rest In Peace Chris Cornell

July 20th, 1964 – May 18th, 2017

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