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Melancholic ecstasy - 93%

o2w4e, May 3rd, 2007

“Dust rise right on over my time
empty fossil of the new scene
I feel so alone
gonna end up a big ole pile a them bones”

Such words from the song 'Them Bones' could be used to describe the last days of Alice in Chains’ morose lead singer, Layne Staley. Much of the lyrical themes on Alice in Chains’ classic album “Dirt” have a similar feel to those above and could serve as an ironically precise and eerie precursor to the death of the known heroin addict. On “Dirt” we gather a dark and gloomy insight to the lead singer’s melancholy mindset as well as co-writing guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s sometimes humorous but more straightforward etchings.

Layne Staley’s voice on “Dirt” gives off the aura of an anguished and agonizingly disoriented human being. His vocals take you on journeys of introspective sedation and drag you through the mud with them as if you’re an addict hitting rock bottom. The lyrics and vocals deal with such hopelessness and despair as only such a person could feel. One can hear and feel the anger, and more prominently the anguish expressed with each word sung from Staley’s mouth. Never has a vocal performance anchored by such pure emotion been present on a metal record. Staley’s haunting voice and style fits the scheme of things perfectly here, from the feelings of a disgruntled Vietnam soldier (based on Jerry Cantrell’s father) on the song “Rooster” to the thought bending “Would?” to the forlorn and somber gloom of “Down in a Hole,” Staley’s performance is right on target. So much can be said about this downright amazing job of singing. The vocal melodies are creepy at times and extremely powerful. Staley’s feverish vocals during the verses of ‘God Smack’ and the slow dejected chorus of “Sickman” take the listener on a trip through a drug addicts mind. Jerry Cantrell’s dusky vocals provide an excellent transition from Staley’s on tracks like “Would” as well as great backing vocals. Cantrell’s palpable and sometimes humorous lyrics can be found on tracks such as ‘Dam that River,’ and ‘Rooster.’ The former was written after a fight between drummer Sean Kinney and Cantrell because Kinney wouldn’t give Cantrell a ride. The power here however, is in Layne Staley.

Musically, “Dirt” is an often very murky, bass-driven, sludgefest, sonically painting the pictures to go along with the album’s dark lyrical themes. Jerry Cantrell’s guitar work is very straightforward and effective. Sean Kinney doesn’t get too flashy with the drumming, instead, keeping the music going with very solid rhythms. At times, however, this is a hindrance. There are moments where some good fills should have been used like right before and during the chorus and bridge sections of ‘Rooster.’ Mike Starr’s bass is very prominent in the mix. The bass takes center stage in the song ‘Would?’ and is ever present throughout the album, sometimes going along with Jerry Cantrell’s untidy rhythms and others guiding the song along as in the desolate ‘Rain When I Die.’ Cantrell’s guitar playing is very interesting. Cantrell uses haunting dynamics, grimy riffage, and odd bluesy solos to show us a landscape of inner torment throughout “Dirt.”
An excellent example is the transition of the somewhat dissonant clean main riff of ‘Rooster’ into the dark and crushing heaviness of the chorus riff. Cantrell posseses and unconventional palette of curious and eccentric soling and it shows on this album. The solos are not overtly technical but are eerie and dissonant, which brings the music to a new level of gloominess. The guitarist creates an ominous almost sinister presence with the title track’s main riff using a series of bends and slides. Mike Starr provides the main rhythm in parts of this song as well. Cantrell plays what is arguably his most conventional solo of the album on this track. “Dirt” the album is possibly the crowning moment of Alice in Chains’ entirely too short-lived musical career with Layne Staley.

All in all, “Dirt” is a classic album made by a legendary band. Layne Staley’s vocals were so unique and passionate. The music on “Dirt” isn’t the most technical, but the band gets the feeling right on. The biggest downside is the drumming, where some more intricate stuff could have been used at times, though it’s not too bad of a gripe. This is the album that best represents everything that Alice in Chains is about and stands for.