toby wright

REVIEW: Alice in Chains – Alice in Chains (1995)

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.

3.5/5 stars

* I’ve seen it, but never in good enough condition.  The case is always scuffed or broken.  Inspect before you buy.

REVIEW: KISS – Carnival Of Souls (The Final Sessions) (1997)

Part 38 of my series of Kiss reviews, leading up to the release of Monster

KISS – Carnival of Souls (The Final Sessions) (1997, recorded 1994-95)

Finally!  Five years since Revenge, a studio album!

But not the studio album that the general public had been expecting.  The average person on the street would have expected an album by the original Kiss, since they’d just finished a long worldwide smash hit reunion tour.  Carnival of Souls was an album by Paul, Gene, Bruce Kulick and Eric Singer; the album they had finished just before the reunion tour was announced.

Prior to the reunion tour, Gene hyped the new material:  “Very much a brother record to Revenge,” was a quote he gave to M.E.A.T Magazine.  “Head music” was another phrase he used to describe the new album, which was then still called Head (original artwork from Bruce’s website below).

COSartworkFlameHeadjpg

With 20/20 hindsight, I think it’s obvious that Kiss were choosing to evolve by jumping on the grunge bandwagon.  The producer was Toby Wright, best known for cutting two records with Alice In Chains.  The riffs were downtuned, heavy, and obviously not from the streets of New York like classic Kiss.  These sounded like riffs from Seattle.

The thing is, I like Carnival of Souls, quite a bit.  I absolutely loved it back then.  I paid $30 for a bootleg copy (at one point, this was the most heavily bootlegged album ever) back in 1996.  I like almost every song, and this record was historic for Bruce Kulick.  Not only did he have a whopping 9 writing credits out of 12 songs, but he also had his first lead vocal:  “I Walk Alone”.  (Today, Bruce sings lead vocals on his excellent solo albums — check out the BK3 album featuring Gene & Nick Simmons.)

Ironic that Bruce would indeed walk alone in early ’96, having been a driving force of this record.

Kicking off with a lot of noise, feeback, and Paul’s backwards distored vocals, “Hate” opens Carnival of Souls.  Anchored by a complex drum & cymbol pattern by Eric Singer, “Hate” is probably the heaviest song Kiss has ever recorded.  It is a relentless Soundgarden-ish assault with a drum pattern straight out of the Matt Cameron book of tricks.

Paul’s “Rain” is another good, grungy song, but it is nothing compared with “Master & Slave”.  Also known as “Tell Me” on some bootlegs, this is a bass-driven number, with an actual chorus that can be sung along to.  Kiss fans latched onto this one as an early favourite.

“Childhood’s End” is the first epic ballady type song on the album, a Gene title stolen from an Arthur C. Clarke classic.  Lyrically unrelated, this song features a children’s choir and probably could have been on an album like Revenge had Bob Ezrin produced.

Perhaps unwisely, this is followed by a true ballad, Paul’s “I Will Be There”, a song written for his son.  It is a beautiful, sparse, strictly acoustic piece with a soaring vocal.  Bruce’s intricate solo sends this one into the net for a goal.

Closing this “side” of the album is “Jungle”, the only single from Carnival.  Clocking in at almost 7 minutes, this is the album’s standout song.  It is a powerful bass-driven groove, with the kind of anthemic Paul chorus that keeps me coming back.  I love this song, and when I played it in the store, people loved it too.

The second “side” of the album opens with “In My Head”, probably the weirdest Gene song on the album.  Heavy, angry, weird.  I love this song, but it’s pretty different.  Lyrically, musically, this is unlike anything Kiss have done before and I’m at a loss to compare it to something by somebody else.

“It Never Goes Away” follows “In My Head”, another slow one, this one very powerful and perhaps like something that would have been on an album like Superunknown.   “Seduction of the Innocent” continues the slow song pattern.  It sounds a little like heavy Beatles.  I can hear some of that psychedelic “Tomorrow Never Knows” vibe, but in a heavy context.  Gene’s chorus tops the cake.

An epic is up next:  Gene’s “I Confess”.  The verses sound much like outtakes from The Elder, with strings and a dark vibe.  Then Gene’s chorus nails the foot back to the gas pedal.  The song alternates between heavy choruses and quiet verses, much like the popular music of the time….

Paul’s final song of the album, “In The Mirror”, is a scorcher.  It has a killer riff and could have fit on any number of Kiss albums.  Imagine it recorded by the original lineup.  If you can picture it in a “I Stole You Love” vibe, suddenly it sounds like something that could have been on Love Gun.  As it is, the guitars are very 90’s in their sound and the drums very dry.  It was the fashion.

Carnival of Souls ends with what ended up being Bruce Kulick’s swan song, his first and last lead vocal:  “I Walk Alone”.  This fan favourite has a very tentative lead vocal, he’s noticeably improved in the years since.  Still, it’s a nice ballad, and when Gene joins him singing the end, it’s perfect.  Strangely enough, this song never made any of the bootleg discs out there.  Perhaps it was never meant to be on the album?  I don’t know the answer to why.

Carnival has two obvious weaknesses:  the trendy grungy sound, and the fact that so many songs are slow or ballads.  I feel that the ballads are more than made up for by the heaviness of songs like “Hate” and “In My Head”.  I think that Paul’s best two songs, “Jungle” and “Master & Slave” make up for any dull moments.  As for the sudden defection from rock n’ roll to grunge?

Well, keep in mind that this is the band who went disco in ’79.

There was one outtake from this album, which is on the Kiss Box Set:  “Outromental”, which made it onto promo cassettes but was cut from the album itself.

The biggest disappointment with this album was the packaging.  The band decided against the original cover art, and to avoid confusion put the bare-faced lineup on the cover.  But there’s no booklet, no lyrics, and only a couple pictures.

4/5 stars