ALICE IN CHAINS – Alice in Chains (1995 Columbia)
Alice in Chains (known colloquially as Tripod) is a difficult album. It was difficult to make, and it’s hard to listen to. Singer Layne Staley was in the throws of heroin addiction, but what came out of it was a portrait of everything the band went through. It’s ugly, atonal, and occasionally brutally heavy.
Guitarist Jerry Cantrell stepped up with more lead vocals, while Layne harmonized. Lead track “Grind” is one example of this. Layne’s role on this song is limited but critical to the overall vibe. His distorted snarl is integral to what amounts to an angry, lead-footed song. “Brush Away” is more conventional, though Jerry’s droning guitar melodies keep it on the edge. It drones on even while the riff is going its own way. “Brush Away” is relentless but “Sludge Factory” takes it back to a slower grunge. A song like “Sludge Factory” is a perfect definition of grunge at its best. Who knows how the hell they came up with these ideas. Pairing a weird “woo ooo” vocal with the heaviest of riffs and an avante-garde solo is innovative indeed.
“Heaven Beside You” is one of the easier songs to listen to, though MTV had to censor it. “So there’s problems in your life, that’s fucked up, I’m not blind.” Jerry sings lead on this acoustic number that sounds like a bridge between the acoustic band of Jar of Flies and the electric one of Dirt. It has a bit of a winter chill, just like the lyrics suggest. Don’t forget though, that Alice in Chains really like to write fucked up music. “Head Creeps” is one of those tracks. It sounds like an audio portrait of heroin withdrawal. “No more time…just one more time.” But listen to Sean Kinney just killing it on the unorthodox drum patterns. They close the first side with an intense single called “Again”. Once more it’s heavy, atonal and not at all commercial: metal sludge with “doot doot” singing.
The second side is even darker. A slow “Shame in You” is beautiful but sounds like depression embodied in sound. “God Am”, though, is angry and bitter. The lyrics are clever, and the riff is a beefy stutter. “Can I be as my God am?” asks Layne in one of his most provoking songs. “I’m not fine, fuck pretending.” That may as well be the theme for the entire album. They were not fine, and they were not pretending. Despite this, musically Alice in Chains could not be touched by their contemporaries. Only Soundgarden could have been capable of playing music of this complexity.
Writer’s block seems to come up in the storming “So Close” and “Nothing Song”. “It’s the same old sit-down roll-around chewed-up pen,” says Layne in “So Close”. His humorous side comes out in “Nothing Song”, with a stream of consciousness lyric that veers from autobiographical to bizarre. It’s one of the weirdest songs on the album, and Jerry’s shrieking guitar is an absolute treat.
“Frogs” and “Over Now” end the album on a pair of slower-paced songs. “Frogs” simmers low and slow, but “Over Now” is an another acoustic one with a brighter center. Jerry sings what might be about as close as Alice ever got to a campfire singalong song.
When it was first issued, you could get Alice in Chains in two different coloured jewel cases. Most were yellow with a purple spine, but the very rarest ones were purple with a yellow spine.* Even the cassettes came in coloured cases — yellow, with a purple tape inside. Whichever you choose, prepare yourself for an album that will stubbornly refuse to open up to you on just one or two listens. It’s good, but not for the meek.
* I’ve seen it, but never in good enough condition. The case is always scuffed or broken. Inspect before you buy.