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Avoid direct contact with eyes and skin. - 80%

Deathdoom1992, April 11th, 2018
Written based on this version: 1992, CD, Columbia Records

Cannibal Corpse have had it wrong for years. You don't need gory lyrics, death growls or low, crunchy guitars to be dark. But of course, this is common knowledge. And this is masterfully proven by four guys from Seattle who, ironically, used to play glam metal in the '80s. Alice in Chains's Dirt is a study in hate and darkness, an album so toxic it can be fatal in large doses. Hell, this makes My Dying Bride look like Poison.

It's difficult to quantify exactly what it is about Dirt that rubs me the wrong way. I mean, I still like it a lot, but being as AiC are one of my favourite bands, I have high standards when it comes to their albums. And I consider this easily the weakest of the Staley-era albums. Maybe part of the problem is it is just too real. I know this sounds odd criticising a band for having lyrics that reflect reality but this is too vivid. Listening to this is like living through Layne Staley's drug-induced nightmares. And it leaves a bitter aftertaste in the mouth.

That's not to say it's free of all musical issues, though. There's an unnecessary interlude which adds nothing and just gets in the way, and there's "Sickman", a confused musical mess of a song, which I guess is supposed to represent the chaos of drug addiction, but it just comes off as a pool of half-formed musical ideas with weird, though admittedly effectively disturbing vocals by Staley. Then there are songs which, though initially enjoyable, on repeat listens reveal themselves to be not as good as, for example, "Bleed the Freak" or "Sludge Factory". This category encompasses three of the five singles: "Dam That River" (although a fairly enjoyable hard rock song), "Rooster" (overlong), and "Would?" (props to this for being a tribute to the brilliant Andrew Wood)

But while those songs may not hold up on repeat listens, we're not talking about a record by any average band. This is Alice in Chains and as such there were always gonna be some classics here. Therefore, "Them Bones", "Rain When I Die", and "Down in a Hole" are bona fide AiC classics, so by extension are fucking brilliant and stand beyond all criticism. "Them Bones" is ushered in by a Jerry Cantrell riff which will become embedded in the brain after a single exposure, and the wordless vocals of Staley, not unlike "Man in the Box" on smack, before evolving (or devolving?) into a complete monster. But it's okay, because it's only 2:30 long, the perfect length; not long enough to inflict depression on the listener but long enough to cement its status as a piece of heavy metal brilliance. And "Down in a Hole" is more or less the perfect power ballad (although to call it that seems patronising), all soft acoustics and gentle vocals. But beware: you want to enjoy that one with Prozac handy.

And another thing to praise: the musicianship is supreme. This is the last album with original and superior bassist Mike Starr (or maybe I'm just a sucker for the original line up), and it shows that these guys had been playing together for ages before this album. Maybe they weren't quite bonded by blood, but certainly bonded by drugs. I can only wish, however, for more of the Staley-Cantrell vocal harmonies that made Facelift so special though.

So, there you have it. An album that could have been great, and probably would have been if there was some let up at some point. And it could have been remedied easily: stick "Would?" in the middle of the album, or even write some of that funk shit from the debut and put it on here. Because really, there's only so much nihilism we can take in a single sitting. Go ahead, put this one on in the car, but remember: avoid direct contact with eyes and skin, keep out of reach of children, and if swallowed seek medical advice. This stuff is dangerous.