Dirt by Alice In Chains
By Eamon O'Neill
There’s little debate as to who the titans of the grunge era really are. Though several bands made a huge impact during the genre’s explosion in the early 1990s, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains’ status as its’ figureheads is beyond dispute.
With each of them hailing from the grunge heartland of Seattle, there was clearly something in the coffee in that north east corner of the States as the final decade of the millennium kicked off. Within a short period Nirvana would deliver the game-changing ‘Nevermind’, Pearl Jam the flawless ‘Ten’, and Soundgarden the combustible ‘Badmotorfinger’. For Alice In Chains, it was the dark and murky masterpiece ‘Dirt’.
With the release of their almost equally brilliant debut ‘Facelift’ in 1990, the four-piece had arrived just a little too early. The opening act on the ‘Clash of the Titans’ jaunt in the U.S. featuring three of thrash metal’s Big Four - Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer - they seemed oddly out of place. Though that tour marked the peak of that particular subgenre, as the juggernaut rolled across the States into the summer of ‘91, a seismic change in the musical landscape was coming.
Even Slayer guitarist Kerry King could see it coming, telling Metal Hammer; “At first I hated it! They were the ‘Man In The Box’ band and I never needed to hear that song again. It was all I knew because that’s all MTV played, but we’d watch them, and Layne [Staley] was probably the best singer of our generation; a superstar with pipes like nobody you’d ever seen before.”
Grunge and alternative would soon be mainstream, and there’s a case to be made that 1991 was the single greatest year in rock music history. As well as the aforementioned ‘Nevermind’, ‘Ten’, and ‘Badmotorfinger’, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ dropped ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’, U2 ‘Achtung Baby’, and R.E.M., ‘Out of Time’. Soon thereafter, Alice In Chains would deliver the perfect album for the times.
Arriving in 1992, ‘Dirt’ is a staggering piece of work. With a signature sound that was uniquely theirs, the four-piece stood apart with their musical approach. Centred on the Black Sabbath-heavy riffs of principal songwriter Jerry Cantrell, it was the harmony vocals between the guitarist and front man Staley that stood them apart. The vocal duo offered a truly irresistible proposition; at times beautiful, at others, frightening, and their mesmerising tones compounded the darkness which loomed over ‘Dirt’s lyrical content of addiction, war, pain and depression.
Opening with an instant drop-d chord and a startling vocal exclamation, ‘Them Bones’ demands the listener sit up and take listen. Kicking off the album, it wastes zero time in getting right to the point, setting the scene perfectly for what’s to come.
Track two, ‘Damn the River’, delivers more of the same, upping the tempo for another riffy dirge, while the swampy, sludgy ‘Rain When I Die’ - credited as being composed by the band as a whole - has the feel of an open jam, with Mike Starr’s bass particularly hypnotic throughout. Its lyrical content though, would prove sadly prophetic.
‘Down in a Hole’ opens side two, slowing the pace for the first time. With its acoustic guitars and air of melancholy, it’s simply sublime. A favourite of writer Jerry Cantrell, it’s a standout on an album bursting with them.
The best however, arrives at the midpoint, and ‘Rooster’ might just be one of the finest songs of the 1990s. A visceral recounting of Cantrell’s father’s time served in the Vietnam War, it ebbs and flows, from paced menace, to the explosive. A powerful and passionate evaluation of the psychological impacts on a soldier, it’s arguably Cantrell’s finest hour as a writer.
The album closes with a pair of monster tracks that both charted as singles. Written solely by Staley, the disorienting ‘Angry Chair’ is a brooding lament that band mate Cantrell called a “masterpiece”, while the album’s final song - and conversely, its first single - ‘Would?’ is an unrelenting morose earworm and yet another pinnacle of the grunge era.
Leaving a track this good to close out an album proved just how indecently great Alice In Chains really were. Reissued in 2022, ‘Dirt’ is currently available on standard and limited edition opaque yellow vinyl.
Alice In Chains would only manage one more studio album - 1995’s self-titled set - before addiction sadly took its grip on both Staley, and Starr. The singer would pass away on 5th April, 2002, eight years to the day after another grunge icon, Kurt Cobain, while Starr succumbed on 8th March, 2011. The band however, were too good to stay dormant, and in 2005 reunited, eventually recruiting William DuVall as their new singer and releasing the incredible ‘Black Gives Way to Blue’ in 2009.
‘Dirt’ however, remains their most outstanding work. An exceptional release, from an era loaded with them.
Dirt was released on 29th September 1992 and is available to buy at Vinyl8.
1. Them Bones - Alice in Chains
2. Dam That River - Alice in Chains
3. Rain When I Die - Alice in Chains
4. Down in a Hole - Alice in Chains
5. Sickman - Alice in Chains
6. Rooster - Alice in Chains
1. Junkhead - Alice in Chains
2. Dirt - Alice in Chains
3. God Smack - Alice in Chains
4. Untitled - Alice in Chains
5. Hate to Feel - Alice in Chains
6. Angry Chair - Alice in Chains
7. Would? - Alice in Chains