27 Years Ago: Alice In Chains Unleash ‘Dirt’
On Sept. 29, 1992, Alice in Chains released their sophomore album, Dirt, which is widely considered the band’s greatest effort. The album defines the group’s signature sound with heavy dropped ‘D’ tuned guitars, droning vocal harmonies and drug-induced lyrical themes. Dirt peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard album chart and has sold over 5 million copies around the world.
Following the mild success of the band’s debut set, Facelift, thanks to MTV embracing the video for the band’s hit “Man in the Box," Alice in Chains had their sights set on breaking the mold and shattering expectations. They did exactly that with the brooding and dark masterpiece that is Dirt.
The effort got an early boost thanks to the song “Would?,” which was released via the Singles soundtrack well before the album was unleashed. The song was written by guitarist Jerry Cantrell following the death of his friend Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone. Wood died from a heroin overdose back in 1990.
In the liner notes on AIC’s 1999 box set Music Bank, Cantrell states, “I was thinking a lot about Andrew Wood at the time. We always had a great time when we did hang out, much like Chris Cornell and I do. There was never really a serious moment or conversation, it was all fun. Andy was a hilarious guy, full of life and it was really sad to lose him. But I always hate people who judge the decisions others make. So it was also directed towards people who pass judgments.”
The emotions attributed to drug addiction are sprinkled throughout the chilling album especially in “Them Bones,” “Angry Chair,” “Junkhead” “God Smack,” which features the haunting line “What in God’s name have you done? / Stick your arm for some real fun.” Then there is “Sick Man," which features the Staley-penned lyric, "I can feel the wheel, but I can't steer / When my thoughts become my biggest fear.”
The album’s second single “Them Bones” features powerful and guttural screams from late vocalist Layne Staley. Cantrell told Guitar World that he takes great pride in the songs 7/8 time signature. “Off-time stuff is just more exciting. It takes people by surprise when you shift gears like that before they even know what the hell hit ‘em… a lot of Alice stuff is written that way. ‘Them Bones’ is a great off-time song.”
The effort also marks the band’s last recording featuring bassist Mike Starr, who passed away from a drug overdose in 2011. Starr shines putting his stamp on the bass-driven song “Rain When I Die” and “Angry Chair.”
Alice in Chains scored a huge hit when they released “Rooster” as the fourth single from the effort. Layne Staley’s haunting vocals combined with Jerry Cantrell’s masterful guitar work make the song a classic. Cantrell wrote the six-minute song about his Vietnam War-vet father, who was nicknamed “The Rooster.” The track shares the horrors of war that his father finally opened up about years later. It would go on to become the biggest song on the disc, peaking at No. 7 on the Mainstream Rock Chart.
The final single peeled off Dirt is the dark love song “Down in a Hole.” Cantrell said in the ‘Music Bank’ liner notes, “It’s to my long-time love. It’s the reality of my life, the path I’ve chosen, and in a weird way it kind of foretold where we are right now. It’s hard for both of us to understand … that this life is not conducive to much success with long-term relationships.”
On top of all the great singles, Dirt has some great deep cuts including the wah-infused title track, the Cantrell written rocker “Dam That River,” “Junkhead,” “Sick Man,” and an untitled track now known as “Iron Gland,” which features Slayer’s Tom Araya. The singer lends his demonic voice to the 43-second track that squeezes in between the tracks “God Smack” and “Hate to Feel.”
Dirt cemented Alice in Chains' place in rock ‘n’ roll history and stands out as one of the musical highlights of the 1990s grunge era. Moreover, it highly influenced a new generation of rock acts who would go on to dominate rock radio in the 2000s.
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