Essential albums: Alice In Chains, “Dirt”

Let me start this review by telling you two things:

1) In 1993, Alice In Chains’ “Dirt” was the most important album in the world to me.

2) After 1993, about 12 years passed before I was able to listen to “Dirt” again.

I won’t bore you with a bunch of personal history (we’re here to talk about metal, not blather about our freakin’ feelings, for crying out loud), but it’s not an exaggeration to say that “Dirt” kept me alive and sane at a time when staying alive wasn’t a high priority and being sane didn’t seem worth the bother. It was a dark time and one of the things that pulled me through it was “Dirt.” I’m indebted.

Apparently, the guys in Alice In Chains felt much the same way. How else can anyone explain how the band created such a beautiful, painful, raging and thoroughly cathartic piece of art?

“Dirt” was the band’s sophomore full-length album. While their 1990 major label debut, “Facelift,” had some excellent songs (“We Die Young,” “I Can’t Remember,” “It Ain’t Like That,” “Real Thing” and, to a lesser extent, “Man in the Box”), the rest of the album was either forgettable or mediocre. It was the five-song, mostly acoustic and haunting EP “Sap” that showed AIC had more up their sleeve than shock value and possessed the potential to be more than just a nihilistic Soundgarden.

“Dirt” and “Sap” were released eight months apart in 1992 – “Sap” in February and “Dirt” in October. The albums have little in common sonically – “Sap” is mellow while “Dirt” shrieks almost from the first note to the last – but there’s a deep melancholy in both albums that is hard to miss. Both are steeped in depression, but “Dirt” is a quiet meditation while “Dirt” is scream therapy.

Vocalist Layne Staley and guitarist Jerry Cantrell, the band’s main songwriters, matured considerably as artists in the years between “Facelift” and “Dirt.” The juvenile horror stories that littered “Facelift,” such as “Love Hate Love” and “Confusion” are gone. Also, nothing on “Dirt” feels like filler; even the hallucinatory, whacked-out, one-minute blast of “Iron Gland” feels absolutely right and necessary. Not a note is wasted.

“Them Bones” sets the tone, with an unrelenting, off-kilter riff. “Off-kilter” is an apt musical description for “Dirt;” the songs are structured on minor chords and odd time-signatures and Staley and Cantrell’s vocal harmonies are often beautiful yet jagged. “Them Bones” ratchets up the tension with Cantrell’s climbing riff – a riff that marches up to the musical cliff without providing a satisfying climax. The song ends abruptly, leaving the listener hanging in midair. Can I be blunt? It’s f***ked up s**t.

“Dam The River” could almost be normal, except that Cantrell’s guitar keeps buzzing and launching grace notes that keep the whole song off-balance. “Rain When I Die” is the sound of a binge gone bad, or a habit that’s turning quickly into a life-destroying addiction. Yes, it’s no shocker or secret that most of what Staley penned for “Dirt” was about his soon-to-be-totally debilitating drug addiction and there’s a pain and roar of self-hate here that’s frightening and yet so candid and honest that it’s refreshing. Remember, this was 1992 – “emo” (which, to me, seems like nothing more than some haircut kid crying about his girlfriend) – hadn’t been invented, so hearing a man actually talk about having a real, freakin’ emotion was nothing less than a revelation. Back then, kids, men weren’t allowed to have emotions – or at least they weren’t allowed to talk about them.

“Down in a Hole” is a suicide note written years in advance and “Sickman” is a trip in an ambulance after the overdose. “Rooster” is the only song that strays from the theme. A song about Cantrell’s father’s time in Vietnam, it’s heartfelt without being congratulatory or full of heroism or honor. “Rooster” is a song about survival, which makes it unique in an album otherwise committed to death.

“Junkhead” may seem like a celebration of drug addiction, but “self-justification” is probably a better description. “If you’d let yourself go and open your mind, I bet you’d be doing like me and it ain’t so bad,” Staley sings – but it’s obvious even he doesn’t believe it. “Junkhead” is Staley whistling, unconvincingly, past the grave yard he knows is about to claim him. To call “Junkhead” sad is simply not adequate. It’s heartbreaking.

“Dirt” burns with an acid hallucination of a riff and Staley spits out the words like a man in a cold fury. Of course, Staley’s rage is all self-directed. The song bites into your stomach. Although it was never one of the band’s hits, “Dirt” is the band’s (and album’s) masterpiece. Even today, it’s a song that cuts like broken glass.

“Godsmack,” while hardly cheery, at least is a bit more up-tempo and “Iron Gland” is a mad carnival of rushing manic feeling. It doesn’t last, though. It can’t. The band flies into a twisted dirge, with spastic surges, on “Hate To Feel.” There’s a doom metal vibe on “Hate To Feel.” Simply put, this song scares the bejeezus out of me every freakin’ time.

“Angry Chair” somehow almost became a hit, or at least it got a decent amount of radio play. How that happened is quite beyond me; it’s hard to imagine a song with such real self-loathing ever being played on rock radio today (these days, you’re only allowed to be angry at your parents on the radio – thanks for that, Disturbed, you cheap hacks). I’ve tried and tried to think of an adjective to describe “Angry Chair,” but the best I can do is this: “Angry Chair” is the sound of hell coming down. It’s “brutal” in a way the angriest death metal band never achieves. “Angry Chair” is Staley turning himself inside out. It’s genius, kids. It’s gawddamm bloody horrific genius.

“Would?” is almost hopeful after “Angry Chair,” but only almost. The vocal duets are gorgeous and the chorus always blows me away. It’s just the right end.

You know the rest of the story. After “Dirt,” the band recorded another long EP (“Jar of Flies”) and one more full-length album (the self-titled “Alice in Chains”) in the studio with Staley on vocals. When Staley died of drug overdose, the news felt almost expected, a letter delayed but arriving at last.

Last year, the band returned with a new album (“Black Gives Way to Blue”) and co-vocalist/guitarist William DuVall, who shares mic duties with Cantrell. The album is solid and well-done and the band’s new incarnation is refreshing. But while I’m looking forward to hearing more albums from Alice In Chains, I can’t imagine any new album having quite the same impact at “Dirt.” It’s the album for which the band will be remembered.

Concert review: Exodus, Malevolent Creation, Holy Grail and Bonded By Blood, Louisville 9/2

The concert planner at Louisville’s Phoenix Hill Tavern seemed to have things backwards.

For the Sept. 2 Exodus show, the promoter had booked two stages of music. Exodus, Malevolent Creation and the other national acts, Holy Grail and Bonded By Blood, would play the main stage. Meanwhile, a second stage of regional metal bands – headlined by Owensboro’s Factory Damage, was booked as well. More metal bang for your $15. Not a bad deal.

However, the club stuck Exodus and the other national acts in a bar, with a tiny, enclosed mosh pit, while the regional, unsigned bands were put in a spacious, spacious, park-a-semi-in-here-and-still-have-lots-of-room upstairs patio. No one apparently anticipated there would actually be moshing at the show – or else they just wanted to control it by forcing the moshers into the enclosed “free to mosh” zone. So naturally, people crammed the tiny pit for Exodus while maybe 10 people were spread out in a room the size of a football field for the local bands. Poor planning, Phoenix Hill Tavern.

I was late driving to Louisville, but arrived in time to catch the second half of Bonded By Blood’s set. “Bonded By Blood,” of course, is the name of one of Exodus’ signature songs, so I guess the boys in BBB were either excited as hell to be on the tour with one of their idols, or a little bit sheepish about sharing a stage with the band whose song title they “borrowed” for their name. I knew absolutely nothing about BBB – and while their set was well-performed and energetic, I wasn’t inspired to increase my familiarity with them. It was pretty standard retro-thrash, pleasant but hardly groundbreaking. So there.

After the BBB set, I wandered upstairs to the second stage, where a band from Columbus Indiana was taking the stage. I can’t remember their name (yes, I could look it up on the show flier, but I’m not going to, so sue me); all I remember for sure is the first song was called “Green River,” but it didn’t sound anything like CCR.

There were some things I liked about Name Forgotten Band From Columbus Indiana. The music was pretty ok, and the guitar player made the best metal faces of anyone I’ve ever seen. I wish I’d had a camera to document those metal faces for posterity; we could’ve sent the pics into deep space to discourage any aliens foolish enough to want to mess with us. That’s how scary those metal faces were. Wow, I’ll have nightmares just thinking about them.

But, like way too many local and regional bands, NFBFCI had a “death metal” vocalist, who sounded like either a Satanic pig or the farmer on the day the stump-broke calf gets its revenge. Look, I like a lot of death metal … but what I don’t like are bands that go grab a buddy to grunt into a microphone because they think it’s metal. Hellllo! It’s actually OK to sing once in a while. You don’t have to gurgle like Cookie Monster. Next time, bands, actually hold singer auditions and don’t just pick your friend to “sing.” That is all.

I fled the nameless band soon enough and found my way back to the main stage in time for Holy Grail – wh0 absolutely, positively blew me away. They were fantastic – with great solos, heavy yet melodic songs and a strong singer who can go for the high notes. Three members of the Holy Grail used to be in White Wizzard, another neo-thrash outfit. Most neo-retro thrash bands haven’t impressed me much, but Holy Grail really put on one hell of a good show. I was so impressed, I bought a T-shirt. Check these guys out.

Holy Grail split and Malevolent Creation began toting their crap on stage. I went upstairs again to hear Factory Damage … but what I witnessed instead was so horrifyingly terrible I still can’t shake the memory.

Factory Damage was still waiting in the wings. Meanwhile, on stage, an acoustic duo was putting out the some of the worst music I’ve ever heard outside a karaoke bar.

Let me just say the words again: Acoustic-frikkin-duo.

Oh, it was bad. Imagine Tenacious D, except without anything entertaining or humorous about it, and that’s the duo. The singer was croaking “treat queens like whores and whores like queens,” which he probably thought was pithy and original, but is actually a long wore-out and rather misogynist cliché. Also, it’s terrible dating advice, but I digress. Anyway, Tenacious F totally killed the vibe and sucked all the fun out of the room like a dead relative at a child’s birthday party. How was Factory Damage expected to go on after that? I listened as long as I could, told Ed from FD I’d come back and got the hell out of there.

Malevolent Creation was about to start their first song. While Malevolent C’s studio albums are not my cup of tea, the band really tears it up live. They were not as good as Holy Grail, but still, it was a good performance. Perhaps my ears were just relieved to get away from the acoustic duo, but I was very impressed by MC’s set.

Every once in a while I’d run upstairs to see if Factory Damage was on … but the guys were apparently having one hell of a tough time. Maybe they just had to wait for the undynamic duo to shut up and go away, but they were very delayed getting on stage. By the time FD started into their first song, it was less than 10 minutes before Exodus was scheduled to begin their set.

I only caught three of FD’s songs, but they were far and away the best band I’d seen on the regional band stage all night. Their songs are well-crafted and performed … but what really sets Factory Damage apart is their vocalist – who (you guessed it) can actually sing. Attention local bands, hear me: Having a strong singer who can do more than pig-grunt is the thing that can really set your band apart.

Poor Factory Damage really got screwed by being slated to play behind the undynamic acoustic duo. By the third song, two-thirds of the crowd ran downstairs to wait for Exodus. Ed from FD said later the band was in a rush to play and get off stage in time to catch Exodus’ set, too, so I don’t feel too bad about running back downstairs to the main stage.

Exodus. What can I say about Exodus? First, it’s a pretty giddy experience for an old-school thrasher like myself to walk into a bar and see Gary Holt warming up and chatting beside the stage. The man is one of the founders of thrash metal and his band has only gotten better over time. Holt and guitarist Lee Altus make playing ridiculously intricate riffs on songs like “Children of a Worthless God” look so damn easy. I spent the first part of the show in the pit staring at Holt’s and Altus’ fingers during the solos.

Frontman Rob Dukes has family in Kentucky who came to the show – but the club wouldn’t let Dukes’ 13 year-old nephew in to see the show. The kid had to watch the show through a window. Dukes told the crowd and the crowd responded by booing the club owner … which probably means the band won’t be playing PHT again.

The band played three songs from the new “Exhibit B” – “The Ballad of Leonard and Charles,” “Beyond The Pale” and “Good Riddance.” The rest of the set included the above mentioned “Worthless God,” “Iconoclasm,” “Pirana,” “Deathamphtemamine,” “Blacklist,” “Toxic Waltz” and “Bonded By Blood.” Every song was flawless, the band sounded great and the crowd went nuts. The band treated the show like they were playing to 40,000 people at Wacken instead of just 250 people in Louisville. That’s class.