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A splash of everything - 84%

gasmask_colostomy, December 15th, 2015

How the hell did Alice in Chains get so popular? I mean, really, they had all the narcotic shit going on, they weren't averse to tampering with musical formulas, and they sounded totally out of their time. Looking back, it's easy to say that Layne Staley's drawling, slurring vocals pulled them into the grunge wave (maybe their home in Seattle too, hehe), as well as Jerry Cantrell's propensity for putting out riffs alongside some pure noise and ugly guitar frolics; then there are those vocal harmonies, which go closer than Nirvana ever did to Kurt Cobain's supposed blueprint of The Beatles-meets-Black Sabbath; also, the kind of depressing themes, which really scrape the bottom of the human condition - angsty, self-doubting, self-loathing. For these guys to be big, we sure know that the early 90s were a strange time.

However, Alice in Chains had (and continue to have) more metal credentials than any other of the Seattle bands, and satisfy in a slightly offbeat way that caters as much to 70s fuzz devotees as to the cool modern kids. To describe the elements that make up their sound is easy, yet to compare them to other bands is difficult: there's a stoner element that doesn't go all the way to Kyuss or Sleep, but actually verges on the more conventional songwriting style that Queens of the Stone Age have been so successful with; there's that retro edge that borrows from Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, and even dips a toe in the 80s doom pool to add a dash of Saint Vitus and Pentagram; added to that are some more extreme tendencies that are not extensively seen on this album, such as the sludge scene of Crowbar, Corrosion of Conformity, and Down; finally, some of the offbeat spirit of the 90s alternative bands is certainly there in the form of Faith No More's shadow, Nirvana'a snottiness and catchy abrasiveness, not to mention Soundgarden's experimentalism. Seriously, show Alice in Chains's Similar Artists list to a mate and see if their head doesn't explode.

This album is a little less complicated than all that, and - to all extents and purposes - can be viewed as Alice in Chains's "commercial" album, though that's not really conceding very much. You can sing along to most of the songs here if you don't mind hurting your throat and there are several riffs to hum or to provide the timing for stabbing the cushions on your sofa, whichever appeals most. When the song 'Dirt' starts and you find yourself nasalling along to Staley's "aah"s (trust me, nasalling is the right word), you'll start to realize why it's so hard to pin this band down to a particular sound. The vocals are instantly distinctive, pretty hooky, and very memorable, yet they aren't exactly good in any quantifiable way, just appropriate for the music, except for Cantrell's harmonies, which actually are great. Cantrell is also a fucking amazing guitarist and spends most of this album looking like he's doing fairly little while actually showering class and detail all over the place. The basic riffs for most of the songs are reasonably simple, but always have plenty of character: some of them are ballsy as fuck ('Rain When I Die' anyone?), some of them are darkly brooding ('Angry Chair' sounds like the next James Bond theme), while a few of the slowest numbers draw more overtly from the doom scene, even if the sick atmosphere absolutely hits the nail on the head. Mike Starr's bass is a significant part of the picture too, making up a huge wall of sound behind the more classic guitar. Sean Kinney is key to this album, keeping those influences from becoming too obvious by playing his own thing, which means that 'Dirt' never errs too close to the extreme or commercial side of things, continually adding complexity to hookier sections (the chorus of 'Angry Chair') and loosening the screws a little when the band hit the sludge and doom treacle.

There are songs on 'Dirt' that everyone has heard, though the relative consistency of the album means that there is a lot to enjoy beyond the radio hits. All of the singles (5 of them, this was a big boy on the charts) are decent, though I've never quite understood the fuss about 'Rooster' or 'Would?', which is perhaps more hype than anything. It's true, 'Would?' soars up into a big chorus with a nostalgic vocal, but looking elsewhere, 'God Smack' has one of the grimmest riffs this side of Norway, 'Rain When I Die' manages to be touching and all about the guitars, 'Dam That River' is so easy to sing along to, and the title track is a culmination of everything that makes the album great. Admittedly, 'Hate to Feel' is a tad disappointing, lurching about like a car with the handbrake still on, and 'Sickman' represents another dip, yet there's not a great deal wrong in an hour-long album, and that's an achievement in itself.

I thought 'Dirt' was pretty good when I bought it as a 15 year old, and almost 10 years on, I can still listen to it with active enjoyment, even if the reasons have changed slightly. Both accessible enough for the mainstream and heavy enough for the metal community, this is one album that unaccountably succeeds, despite the mess of the scene that it sprung from and the influences it melds together. A weird triumph.