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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!