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Listening to ‘Dirt’, especially for the first time, is an extraordinary event, chiefly because hearing it is like simultaneously experiencing two disparate and seemingly incompatible aspects of the grunge sound of the early 1990s; its apotheosis and its antithesis.
The apotheosis, or the embodiment of grunge, is found on ‘Dirt’ through Layne Staley’s forlorn, wounded, and utterly inimitable vocals on shoegazer call-to-arms ‘Would?’, through Mike Starr’s downbeat and lethargic basslines on ‘Rain When I Die’ and the downward-spiralling and plainly drug-induced rhythms of ‘Angry Chair.’ Such things are irrefutably straight from the Seattle book of alt. rock, and if that was all ‘Dirt’ was composited of, this would be a very different work indeed.
The antithesis, meanwhile, is what provides the album with its wholly unique flavour. Absent are the unmotivated punkish power chords loved by the likes of L7 or Nirvana, and in its place we find the driving (or to be more precise, bulldozing) monstrous riff on album centrepiece ‘Them Bones’, and alongside it the crunching chugging and wailing lead work of the anthemic ‘Dam That River’, all of it complimented by the paranoid schizophrenia of ‘God Smack.’ Hell, Tom Araya of THAT band even rears his head to swiftly contribute to hidden track ‘Iron Gland.’
These two polar opposites are forced by the four-man group to collide headlong, and the result is an album that is as epically maudlin as it is stompingly heavy, as though you have been deposited in an alternate dimension where Judas Priest had emerged from Seattle, USA rather than Birmingham, England. Unlikely bedfellows they may indeed seem, but the shotgun marriage has in this instance worked sublimely, and the fact that AIC even had the gall to weld on some high-flying choruses and lead passages, ranking amongst them amongst the best metal anthems around, is a testament to the band’s skill and the will to force a cobwebbed genre forward.
‘Dirt’ is certainly no thrasher of a record, and it isn’t the disc one should purchase to feel wild experimentation sweep them away in a flurry of fretboard dancing; the person listening to it to hear the last word in extreme speed is advised to pull his headphones off sharpish.
What it IS, fellow metalheads, is one of the boldest and most brazenly successful reconciliations between supposedly implacable musical opponents. As fantastically heavy as its historical renown among metal fans belies, ‘Dirt’ is a stone-cold monstrous landmark in alternative music’s history, and a classic in every sense possible.