Alice in Chains’ sophomore effort, “Dirt,” has proven to be a masterwork of sorts. Coming as it did after Nirvana’s now-iconic release, Alice in Chains was poised from the moment of “Dirt’s” release on, to set a standard for not just grunge, but for contemporary rock music. The album is now being remembered for its dark and haunting topics and imagery. There was no way to escape the darkness portrayed on the album. More than merely being dark for theatrical purposes, “Dirt” illustrated an emotional depth that made grunge a favorite genre for millions of Gen-Xers.
Alice in Chains: Beyond grunge
With glam metal slowly being eclipsed in musical popularity contests, it made sense that grunge would become the next big thing. Some bands, however, have transcended the genre limits of grunge and are considered a part of metal. That is what has happened to Alice in Chains. “Dirt” is ranked No. 26 on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time.
There is an element of metal in Alice in Chains. The heavy riffs, the screamed vocals, and the refusal to ignore the darker side of human emotions. While it was not similar to the kind of metal that had just receded from the height of popularity, the music of Alice in Chains did bear similarities to other types of metal. To call it strictly alternative music would be to miss a good portion of what the band had to offer.
Alice in Chains: “Dirt”
Critics have noted throughout the years, that “Dirt” is a dark album and have wondered why. Several critics have pointed to lead singer Layne Staley’s drug addiction. On various discussion boards, fans have pointed out that guitarist Jerry Cantrell was experiencing emotionally harrowing events, too. Cantrell also wrote some of the songs on “Dirt.”
Almost 30 years later, “Dirt” is still the subject of discussion, as many consider what about the album makes it so good. There are no easy answers in that regard. What is known is that there are several songs found on “Dirt” that that both exemplify the dark subject matter the album is known for, as well as demonstrating the metal elements that Alice in Chains is known for.
Specifically songs like “Would?” and “Down in a Hole” have come to typify the Alice in Chains style. What both critics and fans have marveled at is the depth of emotion captured in the songs on “Dirt.”
The song sounds like a giant, shaking guitar riff. The vocals are delivered in an aggressive style, and the line “If I would, could you?” sounds like a taunt. Mixed with the drums the entire guitar part begins to sound like machinery. On its own, “Would?” made it to No. 31 on the singles chart. It was also featured in the film “Singles,” and was the title track of an early EP. The tension between the guitar sound and the rest of the instrumentation helps to illustrate the tension in the lyrics.
“Down in a Hole” by Alice in Chains
The title alone indicates that this will not be a happy song. The melodic verses move seamlessly into the super heavy, but also slowed down, chorus. The lyrics must be heard to be appreciated. References to tombs, graves, questions about being saved, and dead flowers, all play up the theme of pending death and current emotional torment.
With “Dirt,” Alice in Chains offered the listening public music they might not have been ready for. Be that as it may, Alice in Chains showed what emotional depths could be explored through a relatively new genre. Whether people label the band alternative, alternative metal, or simply metal, one thing is clear: “Dirt” is a different, emotionally honest album that set a standard for hard rock subgenres in the future.