Grunge rock was an integral part of the early 1990s rock landscape and as with any genre there are always a few bands that stand out above the rest, oftentimes shaping and defining the genre. In the case of grunge rock, Alice in Chains was a cornerstone of the genre and their album Dirt remains one of the most defining and recognizable albums of any genre.
Although grunge rock could be considered beyond its infant stage when Dirt was released in 1992, the genre as a whole hadn’t had enough time to fully develop to a point where it could enjoy national mainstream success, perhaps aside from Pearl Jam’s Ten and Nirvana’s Nevermind. Dirt’s critical and commercial success only helped propel grunge rock to the national scene.
It wasn’t with ease that Alice in Chains worked their way up to the point that they would become one of the most recognizable groups of the early 1990s. Turmoil with the band and the producers – arguments primarily dealing with drug use by Alice in Chains lead singer Layne Staley – coupled with the addictions other group members faced created an often tumultuous environment leading up to and during the recording of Dirt.
Paradoxically, the battles and demons the band members faced not only helped write some of the greatest lyrics one will find in the grunge music, but helped the band truly capture the heavy, dark, and distorted sound that Alice in Chains fans expected and loved, as well as attracting fans of alternative metal.
Early works of the band certainly did feature the dark and distorted sound found in Dirt – after all, Alice in Chains manifested the quintessential grunge sound perhaps better than any band of the era – but Dirt was Alice in Chains’ magnum opus mainly due to the perfect combination of darker, more somber lyrics and sound thanks in large part to the heavy distortion featured throughout the album.
The lyrics featured throughout the album revolve around various topics such as mortality and the darker side of drug use, although two of the album’s most well known songs – “Rooster” and “Would?” – serve as tributes and remembrances to two crucial figures in the life of lead guitarist Jerry Cantrell.
“Rooster,” known for its lyrical overtones of the Vietnam War, was written based off the strain and hardships Cantrell’s father after returning from the Vietnam War. “Would?” is a tribute to one of grunge rock’s most important early figures – lead singer of the band Mother Love Bone Andrew Wood. Mother Love Bone is perhaps best known as the launching point for future Temple of the Dog and Pearl Jam musicians Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament.
Throughout the course of listening to Dirt, Alice in Chains does a fantastic job of making the listener feel the darkness many of the band members were battling. Part of the strength of Dirt isn’t just that the well-known singles carried the album. Rather, the lesser known tracks such as “Dam That River,” “Sickman,” “Rain When I Die,” and “Angry Chair” are all fantastic standalone tracks as well.
“Dam That River” was actually written after a fight between bandmates Jerry Cantrell and Sean Kinney, but more notable is the pounding, in your face riff that isn’t found as prominently on other tracks which instead favour a more distorted and gloomy sound. Equally impressive in “Dam That River” – and other tracks as well – are the combination of rhythmic, head banging guitars coupled alongside powerful guitar solos. “Rain When I Die” is a track that’s a little slower than some of the others on the album in terms of its tempo, but features some of the albums strongest vocals – the primal scream that characterized many of grunge rock’s best albums, but especially Alice in Chain songs.
Although later albums were released by Alice in Chains, Dirt will forever remain the band’s crown jewel and one of the best albums not only within grunge rock, but one of the best albums of the 1990s. The singles “Them Bones,” “Would?,” “Down in a Hole,” and “Rooster” would all become some of the most important and recognizable hits of the early 1990s. “Rooster” and “Down in a Hole” were the only singles released from Dirt that reached the top 10 of any U.S. chart, but given that grunge rock was still yet to reach its full mainstream potential the success of the singles is certainly impressive.
Dirt remains of the of the most acclaimed albums of the early 1990s in terms of its commercial success, reaching number 6 on the Billboard 200 chart. The 5 million copies sold and four-time platinum certified album was the highest selling album by Alice in Chains.
Alice in Chains would go on to release Jar of Flies which interestingly was the first EP in history to reach the top of the Billboard 200 upon its immediate release, and the self-titled Alice in Chains in 1994 and 1995, respectively. These two albums succeeding Dirt would be the final albums released with Layne Staley as the lead singer as the band would go on hiatus before the eventual death of Staley.
Jar of Flies saw similar levels of praise to that of Dirt, but Alice in Chains final self-titled album didn’t enjoy the same level of success as the albums that preceded it, although its important to remember exactly how high the bar had been set.
Alice in Chains began performing comeback shows starting around 2005, and actually released an album in 2009 titled Black Gives Way to Blue that received fairly high levels of praise from fans and critics. Additionally, a 2013 release titled The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here followed a similar vein to that of Black Gives Way to Blue in that the album has enjoyed some success. These two albums, however, featured some different line-up’s than their earlier releases due to the death of both former lead singer Layne Staley and bassist Mike Starr in 2011.
Reviewer: Carl Whitaker
IRC: Adam Schneider
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