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The best Alice in Chains stuff always happened when they dug deep into the well of depression and came out with sludgy, heavy, hooky grooves and melancholy singing, like on the self-titled album or the morose campfire sing-alongs Jar of Flies. I guess some people stopped caring after the death of lead singer Layne Staley in the late 90s, but really main guitar man Jerry Cantrell always had more doom and darkness up his sleeves – a lot more, if we're going by the Degradation Trip albums.
This is basically the Alice in Chains formula on overdrive. For those who loved the band's slow, doomy riffs and sorrowful dirges, this is like a fresh, big hit of crack cocaine – a massive two hour voyage through whatever Cantrell could dig up. If you heard Dirt or the self-titled, you know what to expect here, and this runs the gamut from tripped out doom metal epics to soft acoustic murmurs. Cantrell wings out the riffs like he's got an endless supply, the bass lines are rock-solid barbed-wire stabs to the throat, and the vocals are a mean, weary whine – it's all pretty awesome. Opening dirge “Psychotic Break” is good, but “Bargain Basement Howard Hughes” is a bass-heavy creeper that ends up even better, and the thundering, misanthropic stomp of “Owned” will do exactly what the title says – a killer tune, up there with the best AIC ones.
It's really all just a warm-up for the triptych of great songs later – the Sabbathine stomp of “Pro False Idol” and the moody crawl of “Feel the Void” are both really excellent songs, with a ton of mood, feeling and weight to them. “Spiderbite” is the best one, though – a huge, crushing ode to the perils of heroin with the best riff and chorus on the album. When Cantrell swings into that “Slow poison working inside, descending in shadows, cocoon me then bite...” chorus, I get chills every time. Next to “Heaven Beside You,” this one is probably the best song Cantrell has ever written.
The second disc is a bit of a step down from the first, mostly just by way of feeling a bit patchy – more of a collection of outtakes and B-sides than a real album. But the first five songs are all killer, especially the grungey monster sing-along “Chemical Tribe,” the soul-sucking “Dying Inside” and the cathartic hymn “Siddartha.” After that it gets a bit weaker, with “Hurts Don't It?” being a rather aimless instrumental and “She Was My Girl” a rather phoned in sing-along attempt only slightly redeemed by a cool verse bit.
The album trudges along through “Pig Charmer,” a demented drawl almost physically draining to listen to, and the Metallica-esque “Anger Rising,” which was the lead single here – a pretty kick ass tune. Some of the later ones tend to run together a bit, but they're all entertaining anyway, even when they do sound like outtakes from the self-titled album. But as that's one of my favorite albums of all time, I guess it could be worse. Closing ballad “31/32” is an amazing song, with some of the more aching, nostalgic melodies and some of the best lyrics – there's a real sense of wistfulness and broken dreams. It's quite affecting.
These are just great songs. It can be forgiven if there are a few that come off as filler – even the most well-known Alice in Chains albums have filler, too. And having filler isn't always a damning thing, as if the good moments are good enough, it can redeem all sins. These albums are both too long, for sure, but at the same time, I wouldn't want them much shorter – the huge, droning, impenetrable lengths are part of why it's a degradation trip, after all. It isn't supposed to be easy to sit through.
For fans of Cantrell's trademarked brand of miserable, cynical rock music, this is an absolute feast and a joy (?) to behold. Everything has his unique stamp on it, and even for the albums' more pedestrian moments, it feels vital and heavy. You basically already know if you want this or not. It's for the fans, and a brilliant monument to what this man is so damn good at. Go get it.
Back in late ‘90’s, the heyday of grunge style was gone, so was Alice In Chains, although they weren’t broken up officially. This was largely due to frontman Layne Staley’s loss of functionality as a musician through long years of substance abuse and depression. After the release of “Boggy Depot”, the first Jerry Cantrell album, the band attempted at recording a few songs to see if they can still function together or not. These sessions resulted in 2 songs, ‘Get Born Again’ and ‘Died’, which ended up “Music Bank” box set.
These were not the only 2 songs that Cantrell had penned for a possible new AIC record, he in fact had numerous other ideas, but seeing that he won’t be able to release them under AIC name, he locked himself into his room for a couple of months, finished these songs by himself and wrote even more.
The next move was to recruit a steady backing band, so he got Mike Bordin and Rob Trujillo from Ozzy’s backing band, both superb musicians in their own rights, then closed himself into the studio along with these 2 guys to record all of these songs he completed by himself. The result was over 140 minutes of his most personal output to date, and in one way or another, his career defining work.
Although released as a trimmed 1 CD version at first by Roadrunner Records, “Degredation Trip” actually is a semi-concept double album and should be consumed as a whole. What we have here is more or less a continuation of the more solid, ultra-heavy and brooding style which was present on the last 2 AIC songs, ‘Get Born Again’ and ‘Died’. Of course there are trademark accoustic ballads, melodic grunge rockers and even a few psychedelic influenced tracks, but overall “Degredation Trip” replaces the trippy and jammy feeling of Alice In Chains records with a more solid, darker and deeper approach in which the guitars are the basic element. Another thing to notice is the reducing of the solos (although there are a few trippy solos to be found) and the addition of huge, huge layers of guitar, which build a dense, incredible wall of sound. Trujillo and Bordin lay an exceptionally strong and groovy foundation to Cantrell’s riffs, which sound even better than the Starr-Kinney and Inez-Kinney duos of AIC. Cantrell’s singing and vocal melodies on the other hand are at his best.
And at last, the lyrics. At the heart of “Degredation Trip” is Cantrell’s deep, well written and tortured lyrics, touching upon themes such as depression, heartache, suicide, broken and troubled relationships, alienation and a huge feeling of loss throughout.
Almost all of the songs here are excellently written, arranged and performed. Most songs are based on simple yet monstrous riffs of Cantrell. There are only 2 tracks here that I can count as fillers (namely ‘What It Takes’ and ‘S.O.S.’), but all of the other songs have something exceptional or beautiful to offer in one way or another. And we have to mention that more than half of the songs here are easily up there with AIC’s best material. In fact as a whole, “Degredation Trip” is even better than all AIC albums, production, performance, consistency and arrangement wise. The album is almost flawless that it’s almost absurd!
It’s hard to choose favourites from 2 discs full of music but here are the peaks of the whole album (for me, at least):
Psychotic Break: Doomy, brooding and heavy album opener is built upon layes and layers of different guitar tracks creating an atmosphere so dense and thick that you can touch in front of your speakers. The vocals are amazing here, too.
Owned: One of the heaviest tracks on the album, ‘Owned’ is based on ultra-heavy riffs and dark vocal lines, which reach a climax in the totally CRUSHING chorus. No solos here, but no need for them either. The lyrics are totally self-loathing and vile. Another bonus for the ending - totally grinding!
Angel Eyes: An utterly, amazingly beautiful semi-accoustic semi-ballad, not unlike ‘Heaven Beside You’ or ‘Over Now’, yet even better written and arranged if possible! The lyrics are utterly sad and melancholic and the chorus is one of the best Cantrell has ever penned.
Hellbound: Another very well arranged, heavy track with lots of catchy riffs and lots of attitude. The chorus is once again mesmerizing.
Spiderbite: The HEAVIEST track on the album, ‘Spiderbite’ is based on a twisted, 3-chord riff that is played in a crushing, killing manner – the guitar tone is unbelievable! It is very well written with small accoustic interlude and has an almost cinematic quality to it with a beautifully dynamic structure. The lyrics deal with cocaine addiction and are among Cantrell’s best. Simply put, one of the best Cantrell penned songs ever.
Locked On: A superb groovy rocker led by groovy, wah-laden guitar riffs which build up towards another hugely catchy chorus. The double tracked solo is killer, as well.
Dying Inside: Almost a doom metal track interventing between ultra heavy riffs and accoustic guitars, ‘Dying Inside’ is the darkest, most depressing song on the album, and a masterpiece in its own right. Too bad that it’s not on the 1 CD version, and it’s worth the price of the 2 CD version alone!
Hurts Don’t It?: Amazing, amazing, amazing instrumental! An effect laden guitar interlude gives way to an accoustic laden, exceptionally sad tune with once again, huge layers of guitars. In fact, it sounds like an orchestra of electric guitars.
Anger Rising: The lead single of the record, this is the track that summarizes the album the best: accoustic interlude, basic, ultra catchy and heavy riffing, beautiful solo and great chorus.
31/32: The best accoustic ballad Cantrell has ever penned? Probably. The album closer has huge amounts of emotion in a bitter sweet way.
Overall, apart from the aforementioned 2 fillers, “Degredation Trip” overall is Cantrell’s most focused work yet and it sounds almost impossible top both the quality and honesty of this work. A must have for any rock music fan.
With the passing of Layne Staley, the end of Alice In Chains seemed to be definitive. However, if guitarist Jerry Cantrell keeps on delivering albums that sound like ‘Degradation Trip’, fans of the Alice In Chains sound will still get their fill. And when Roadrunner released the complete sessions of ‘Degradation’ as a double album shortly after the regular edition, that was really a special treat for anyone who loves Cantrell’s work. The “missing tracks” are every bit as good as the songs that did end up on the album, albeit a bit less accessible, but that never was a problem for me. If you weren’t already convinced, this double album will convince you of the simple fact that Jerry Cantrell is a genius.
So what can one expect from this album? Well, the sound is heavy and doomy with the guitar riffs and the song structures obviously influenced by Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. There are some beautiful double or multiple lead vocal lines and there’s plenty of space for more moody, acoustic songs. The atmosphere often resembles the Grunge sound and the songs are dark and moody. Sounds a lot like Alice In Chains, you said? In deed! Although it wouldn’t be fair to call Cantrell’s work on ‘Degradation Trip’ a complete copy of Alice In Chains, because the music is simply too inventive and Cantrell’s songwriting too versatile for that, the overall sound on the album obviously has this distinct Alice In Chains-vibe. And why not? Cantrell more or less single-handedly crafted this sound in the early nineties.
The greatest aspect of this album is probably the way it messes with your mood. As a listener, you can’t help but getting absorbed into the songs. The mood on the album is dark and gloomy, but just when the music seems to drag you too far down, there is a more upbeat and uptempo Rock song to recharge you and hold your attention. Where most of the clones of the Alice In Chains sound prefer to dwell in depression for the full length of an album, the master himself realises that variation suits his album much better.
As said before, the style of the music varies throughout the album as well. While a majority consists of grungy Hardrock bordering on Heavy and Doom Metal, there are also songs that are of progressive Rock proportions (‘Pig Charmer’), sounds of jazzy psychedelia in ‘Feel The Void’, hypnotizing eastern mysticism in the breathtaking ‘Siddhartha’ and of course, there are some beautiful ballads that heavily lean on Cantrell’s classy acoustic guitar work. The feel of those ballads varies from depressive (‘Solitude’) to slightly hopeful (‘Gone’) and from nostalgic (‘31/32’) to dreamy (‘Angel Eyes’).
The uptempo Rockers are a breath of fresh air between the doom ‘n’ gloom of the most of Cantrell’s mental wanderings. Especially because they are of extremely high quality. ‘Anger Rising’ and ‘She Was My Girl’ seem to be the most accessible tracks on the album, so it’s not that surprising that ‘Anger Rising’ got a video. ‘She Was My Girl’ is decorated by a very fine bass line by Rob Trujillo. ‘Mother’s Spinning In Her Grave (Glass Dick Jones)’ is also an irresistable song, maybe because of its infectious, Alice In Chains-ish chorus.
Other highlights of the album contain the massive and moody opening Doom of ‘Psychotic Break’, the mindblowing and absorbing epic ‘Spiderbite’, the beautiful instrumental ‘Hurts Don’t It?’ and the opener of the second CD, ‘Castaway’, in which Cantrell’s vocals can’t help but give me goosebumps.
All of these songs are not only well crafted by Cantrell, but also very well played by Cantrell himself with two guys that were Ozzy Osbourne’s rhythm section at the time: Mike Bordin (ex-Faith No More) on drums and Rob Trujillo (ex-Suicidal Tendencies, now in Metallica) on bass. Especially Bordin shines on this album. I can’t really point out why, because his drumming on ‘Degradation Trip’ is fairly simple, yet very effective. Just those three guys, with Queensryche’s Chris DeGarmo guesting on ‘Anger Rising’.
In addition, the lyrics on the album are nothing short of impressive. There seem to be a lot of references to Layne Staley’s death, but in fact, the album was completed two months prior to his passing. However, the recluse in ‘Bargain Basement Howard Hughes’ and ‘Feel The Void’ and the drug addict in ‘Pig Charmer’ and ‘Spiderbite’ can’t really be anyone else than Cantrell’s late friend and band mate. Because one shouldn’t forget that Cantrell and Staley never hated each other, Cantrell just realized all his endeavors to keep Alice In Chains alive (with Staley) prove to be in vain through the years. His frustration with that whole situation shows in several songs as well.
Another common theme in the lyrics of ‘Degradation Trip’ seems to be Cantrell’s strong hatred about the whole Rock Star attitude. The title of ‘Pro False Idol’ kind of already gives that away, but ‘Locked On’ and ‘Dying Inside’ are ironic and not-so-subtle attacks at the adress of some of those so-called Rock Stars as well. ‘Anger Rising’, about the desperate livestyle of the American lower class, has pretty impressive lyrics too.
Dedicated to him, ‘Degradation Trip’ is the perfect tribute to Layne Staley. Hell, it’s probably even the perfect album! I can hardly imagine any album being as complete and as absorbing as this masterpiece of Jerry Cantrell’s. You have to be in a certain mood to really understand the album and it takes some time before it really sinks in (as did any album Cantrell ever did), but believe me, it’s really worth the time.
As for the score, I’m not really held back when it comes to giving albums high scores, I’m very well aware of that. I can’t, however, remember ever having given any album the highest possible score. It’s the only score that does the album justice though. ‘Degradation Trip’ deserves nothing less than the full score, for being such an amazing addition to my album collection. I wasn’t exaggerating: Jerry Cantrell is a fucking genius!
I can' t believe I'm the first bloke to write a review for this one. This album is the closest thing to a classic I have had the pleasure to listen for the last decade. Well, Sepultura's Roots or Eternal by Samael were not bad records either, but it's another story altogether.
Here, thick bass guitar roar by Rob Trujillo haunts almost every track and sets the frame of mind for this record. The mood definitely is unstable from morose to stormy as proved by the opening track “Psychotic Break”, which is disturbingly beautiful, if I may say so. It puts you down, but now like some dismembered puppet you just can beg for more. And after that, killer songs don't pour they rain: more quiet things like “Angel Eyes” or “Solitude”, brilliantly keep the moody feeling Jerry has built his reputation around. You also got things like “Mother's Spinning” that is catchy as hell. Damn it's so good. Profalse Idol is huge with its memorable melody (or lack of it, depending on viewpoint). And if you own the double cd (well, if you don't you should) then you' ll have the ending track “31/32”, a poignant country-like tune that remains one of my personal favourites on this album. Here Jerry confides some -I think- autobiographical low-life trailer trash stuffs. Recalling the spirit of the folkesque “Heaven beside You”.
But now I realise my review kinda sucks. So I' m gonna rest my case.