The older generation always complains that hard rockers are an angry, unstable bunch prone to violent, antisocial and frequently self-destructive behavior. In the case of most good loud bands, they’re right. There’s an inherent volatility that is key to the appeal of heavy rock. Without this degenerate element, the music loses its impact, becoming little more than the deafening noise our elders suppose it to be. Sometimes the vicarious aspect is there, and the performers look like suicides waiting to happen — as is the case with Alice in Chains. On the band’s fourth album, the lyrics deal with drugs, danger and death — and the songs achieve a startling, staggering and palpable impact.
Since 1987 the members of Alice in Chains — Layne Staley (vocals), Jerry Cantrell (guitar), Mike Inez (bass) and Sean Kinney (drums) — have been channeling their aggressive impulses within a forum of dense rhythms and soaring, resentment-riddled vocals. Theirs are songs of the flesh injected with Gothic metal riffs and seamy harmonies that quiver and squirm in an insatiable quest for self-immolation. Yet Alice in Chains aren’t truly suicidal. They’re like a slashed wrist — stark, bloody and dramatic but more indicative of a cry for help than of a true desire to spiral into the void. Even their most despairing tunes resound with the lust to live, as Staley proclaims in the opening line of the band’s third album: “In the darkest hole you’d be well advised/Not to plan my funeral before the body dies.”
Like their second album, Dirt, which featured six songs about Staley’s battle with heroin, Alice in Chains deals largely with the helplessness and pain of addiction — and not just to drugs. Sure there’s “Sludge Factory,” in which Staley growls: “Things go well, your eyes dilate, you shake, and I’m high…. Now the body of one soul I adore wants to die.” Or the equally desperate “Head Creeps,” in which Staley moans: “No more time/Just one more time…. Suck me through a barbed screen.” His other songs flow more clearly, gathering around obsessions with fame, relationships and mortality. “Brush Away” asks whether Alice’s art is viewed as “a joke? Or latest craze?” In “Over Now,” Cantrell muses about surviving a shattered relationship. And “God Am” questions how an omniscient entity could remain passive in the face of cruelty and callousness.
Even though drugs aren’t the main lyrical focus, sonically the album resounds with a bleakly disorienting vibe. It sounds like the sinister result of a chemical experiment involving both narcotics and psychedelics. Alice’s songs are still dipped in a quagmire of surging guitars and throbbing bass, only this time they’re laced with layered, fluorescent licks and soaring vocal harmonies that make a potentially ugly rendering as beautifully horrific and complex as a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
“Grind” shimmers and shudders beneath a web of trippy wah-wah guitar and half-distorted vocal harmonies, and features one of the album’s many hook-filled choruses. “Sludge Factory” is a nightmarish vista that begins with a sluggish riff, peaks with a sprawling solo layered over demonic chatter and ends with an atmospheric mélange of wailing guitars. The less-turbulent numbers, such as “Heaven Beside You,” “Shame in You,” “Frogs” and “Over Now,” are dominated by folky acoustic segments — reminiscent of the group’s last EP, Jar of Flies. These cuts transcend ballad fodder, merging the classic-rock styles of Cream; Crosby, Stills and Nash; and the Allman Brothers with a hazier, more otherworldly aesthetic, one likely triggered by sleepless níghts and controlled substances.
As bleak and disorienting as Alice in Chains’ music has become, the band is not without a sense of humor, black as it may be. The ultracatchy “God Am” — which features the playfully sacrilegious double-entendre “Can I be as my God am” — opens with the gurgling sound of a bong hit followed by reverberating feedback and a Jeff Spicoli-esque stoner asking, “God may be all-powerful, but does he have lips?” And “Nothing Song” is a mindless number that Staley wrote about trying to finish recording and hitting a creative block: “The nothing song sticks to your mouth like peanut butter on the brain.” So does this chorus.
Compared to Alice in Chain’s past albums, which seemed somewhat ensnared in the grunge-metal formula the band invented, this record seems liberating and enlightening. If Jar of Flies was the key that unlocked the group’s creative potential, then this new disc is the musical rebirth. What really makes Alice in Chains a poignant artistic statement is the band’s unflinching candor. Alice may have once been accused of musical insincerity, but no one could ever say that a line like “I’m not fine, fuck pretending” (“God Am”) doesn’t come from the pit of Staley’s blackened heart. With their new record, Alice in Chains have come to the following conclusion: While survival is preferable to oblivion, pain and existence are inseparable.