Each week, Sunday School takes a second look at a classic album worth revisiting years after its release. EMMIE staff handpick releases that shaped a genre, defined a generation or deserve recognition despite being left in the distance. Keep up with Sunday School for your weekly dose of dusted-off classics and throwbacks that merit a second spin.
Dirt, Alice in Chains
Release Date: September 29, 1992
Good For: Walking in the snow, washing dishes, listening to while running downhill.
Standout Tracks: “Down In A Hole,” “Rooster,” “God Smack”
Dirt is and has always been a favorite album of mine. It gives you everything you could ever want from legendary group Alice In Chains, showcasing the staggered timing of their songs, haunting layered vocals and heaving droning riffs of primary songwriter and co-vocalist Jerry Cantrell. Considering this was only the second release from Alice In Chains, this album shows the skillful craftsmanship of Cantrell’s riffs and former lead vocalist Layne Staley’s unusual harmonies which would soon become iconic. The entire album features drug-tinged lyrical experiences surrounding serious issues of love, war and self-perceptions.
“Them Bones” launches you into a furious and almost suffocating sound, made unpredictable by Cantrell’s thoughtfully chosen 7/8 timing. Hearing this album from 1992 blasting progressive beats and unusual track layering almost echoes the sensationally experimental pop trends of today. Following “Them Bones” is “Dam That River,” a more traditionally timed but no less heavy metal track that reminds us just how unpredictable AIC could be. Both this track and the one before it give us a taste of Layne Staley’s signature droning vocals combined with some of Cantrell’s heaviest riffs.
“Rain When I Die” gives us more of Cantrell’s funky timing, this time centered around former bassist Mike Starr’s almost industrially heavy bassline. Tracks like these are the ones that show off all members’ musical adaptability very well and set high standards for the following albums AIC would release. The end of this track is particularly enjoyable as it fades out and back in with an ethereal harmony.
“Down In A Hole” is one of my favorite songs of all time; we get to experience vocals from both Staley and Cantrell, which work together in compelling ways. This track has a more lyrical focus than those preceding it, allowing Cantrell to focus more on his own contrasting harmonies and Staley’s ability to carry lengthy notes. Following the brief acoustic interlude, we are propelled once more into the heaviness and unusual timing of “Sickman”, a co-written Staley/Cantrell track which is, quite frankly, about drugs. It’s no secret that Alice In Chains personified heroin addiction, which claimed two of their members in 2002 and 2011, and while former tracks also feature themes of drug use, “Sickman” revolves around it. The unusual, ever-changing time signatures keep this track unpredictable.
“Rooster” is a song everyone has probably heard at one point or another; like “Down In A Hole,” it features more vocal experimentation that proved Staley’s ability as a primary pioneer of alternative grunge metal vocal stylization. “Rooster” was written about Jerry Cantrell’s father, a Vietnam veteran who had shared with Cantrell the horrors of war and the impact it had on those who participated. We are once again embroiled within a user’s mind with lyrics like “What’s my drug of choice?/Well what have you got?” from “Junkhead,” another hypnotic vocal endeavor from Staley. Cantrell’s riffs come back to enthrall us as well with “Dirt,” the album’s title track, which is a summary of what we’ve heard so far; droning vocal harmonies, clever riffs and wah-pedal distorted solos that also somehow sound screamingly clear.
“God Smack” is another all-time favorite of mine from this album because it shows how much control Staley had over his vocal abilities. “Untitled” is a brief distortion featuring Slayer’s Tom Araya, lending his demonic aura that serves as a fitting prequel to heavy-hitters “Hate To Feel” and “Angry Chair,” two iconic AIC tracks that have all the most coveted droning and D-tuned distortion any purveyor of the heaviest sound would covet. Concluding the album is Cantrell-penned track “Would?,” an uncertain-sounding ballad written in the wake of fellow musician Andrew Wood’s death.
All of Dirt has deeply emotional and introspective tones, featuring an addict’s perspective on issues such as self-confidence, friendships, relationships and the horrors of war. Especially considering it was released among the likes of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head, it will always remain a standout album of the 1990s that was far ahead of its time and still remains underappreciated today.