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It's a little ironic that Alice in Chains were considered such a popular force in grunge music, considering they were perhaps one of the most sludgy and vile bands of the 90's. Between such maniacal singing and screaming, riffs buried in a huge mound of thick distortion, and such depressing thoughts of the world around them, it was clear that Alice in Chains were in a league of their own. Where Nirvana would tidy up their sound for 1991's Nevermind, this band wouldn't sacrifice how dirty and low their music was, no matter if they got popular or not.
This brings us to their second offering, Dirt. It's an album so sickening and yet so perfect; an album so gloomy and yet so heavenly. What we have here is a flawless collection of 90's metal classics, most of them laced with some of the most morbidly dark and flat-out honest songs written in their time. All of this is wrapped in a musical package that's so consistent and consistently intense that it's very hard to ignore.
Oddly enough, the experience begins with two of the most upbeat tracks, "Them Bones" and "Dam That River." Starting with Layne Staley's high-pitched vocal bursts, "Them Bones" is a song about our mortality; it's basically speaking about how we're all going to die, and of course for everyone it will be inescapable. Uplifting start, huh? Anyway, this is supported by a bizarre 7/8 rhythm with the guitar work being downtuned to high heaven. All the instruments feel hollow, but it only represents the band all that much more. "Dam That River" is the fastest song on the album (debatable with "God Smack" later on the album), and also probably the most uplifting, although that certainly isn't saying much. The pace of the track is akin to "Sex Type Thing" by Stone Temple Pilots, and the chorus is equally aggressive and haunting.
After that's done though, welcome to musical hell. The riffs devolve more into a slow grind, and the pain of the vocals and lyrics only increases as the record wears on. Songs like "Junkhead" and "God Smack" are very specifically about the band members' drug addictions (specifically heroin), while songs like "Dirt" allude heavily to even more brooding images like death and suicide. Many of the songs have more relation to doom metal and sludge metal than grunge at this point, and any similarities to the other members of the Big 4 of the genre become less apparent. Perhaps the best example of this is the song "Hate to Feel." It starts off with a 3/4 riff with an extremely haunting chromatic guitar progression; however, said guitar sound becomes more crunchy on the low end of things, and the power of the doomy grind the song employs feels like the equivalent of being buried under the hot sun.
The members' technical abilities are great, too; each member contributes almost equally to the power of the experience musically, and they react to any quick changes in the songs very efficiently and effectively. Of course, the highest praise still has to go out to Layne Staley and guitarist Jerry Cantrell for creating such a foreboding and deep atmosphere on the album. Most of the time, both of them go hand in hand with each other, tossing parts of the songs to each other and also harmonizing extremely well with each others' vocals.
There's not much more to say. The album is perfect, a monolith of doom-and-gloom that stands as one of ultimate musical statements of modern music. If you haven't listened to it yet, make it your next purchase; it should be number one on the "to buy" list.
(Originally written for Sputnikmusic.com)