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Although my experiences in heavy metal have taken me into a vast sea of various genres and sub-genres, something always pulls me back to Alice In Chains. As one of the first bands I ever truly got into, there has always been a quality about this group that always brought me back to their material enjoying it just as much as I did in days long past. One characteristic I always loved about the band was their ability to use the Black Sabbath medium to create something different, or at least provide a different take on an already established form of metal. To an extent, their "grunge" era brother band in Soundgarden also did the same thing, which always drew me to their music as well, but Alice In Chains possessed a quality not many bands had in the early 90's: authenticity.
As I'm sure most are aware of, the early 1990's found a niche of musicians (of Seattle origin, of course) who tried to present a new take on an already established set of musical ideas. Due to a notion that good music still exists once one had effectively pissed away any iota of creativity, the majority of these bands failed in their quest to establish originality, or at least anything remotely interesting. Alice In Chains and Soundgarden both defied these trends of their time, while also being apart of them enough to be recognized with the scene. Of these two, Alice In Chains presented something rather original, at least in context if not in form.
Whereas Kurt Cobain built himself on his music of Black Sabbath worship without an inkling of skill, Jerry Cantrell continued to show his formidability as a guitar player. This helped to keep Alice In Chains clearly above the majority of their peers, regardless of what degree they could be likened to the Seattle crowd. Alot of this also comes from Layne Staley, whose voice has taken a noticable beating since "Facelift" just two years earlier. His drug addictions had gotten rampant by now, thus helping to influence this album. Staley's own personal demons combined with Cantrell's magnificent songwriting abilities allow "Dirt" to manifest itself as a violent torrent of pain and suffering. When I hear this record, I hear the confessions of a self-aware but seemingly powerless heroin addict unable to escape his own problems, even though he's fully aware that it could be the end of him. As we all know, it was the end of him almost a decade after this album's release and in retrospect adds a sense of ghostly foreshadowing to the majority of the lyrics here.
Yet while Staley provides the tragedy of a heavy metal icon, Cantrell provides the guitar prowess and songwriting abilities. As was present on the previous album, Jerry Cantrell writes the majority of songs here. This includes the most well known hits, particularly "Them Bones," which despite its gloomy lyrics possesses a more jolly feel to it than most of the band's other material of this time. This is seen again in "Down in a Hole," which has more in common with alternative rock than what Alice In Chains is usually known for, but its well written enough to keep it from falling into alt rock's usual sense of banality. Elsewhere, Cantrell pens the brooding "Would?" and also the great but overlong "Rooster," which is lyrically based on his father's time in the nightmarish Vietnam War.
Layne Staley also makes a songwriting debut here, co-writing a number of songs but penning two completely on his own. "Hate to Feel" isn't my favorite song here, as it seems a little long and doesn't draw from sufficient ideas to keep it moving, similar in nature to "Sickman" and "Junkhead." However, "Angry Chair" is far superior, not to mention haunting. It further compounds Staley's lyrical focus of addiction and the damage it causes. The song stands as one of the best on this album, and one of the best Layne Staley ever wrote on his own.
I agree some of the sentiments here in that "Dirt" is an overrated album, but it still stands as one of the best of its era. For Alice In Chains' 1990's catalog, "Dirt" actually sits at the very bottom, which is only a testament to how incredible this band truly was. As far as "Dirt" is concerned, I can recommend most Alice In Chains to seek this out, although it doesn't stack up as well as "Facelift" or the self-titled do. However, its with this album that I feel Staley made the majority of his most convincing confessions about his inner demons, but for those looking for a purely fun heavy metal album, I'd advise seeking out "Facelift" instead as that one is more in tune with what you're looking for.