Mirrors reflect the one-dimensional image given and give it back. Hard rockers Alice in Chains take their fans beyond the looking glass and into the bloody guts of their music, where they explore the darkest sides of emotion and drug abuse -- more like looking at the mirror from the wrong side.
Alice's Seattle-bred members -- singer Layne Staley, guitarist Jerry Cantrell, bassist Mike Starr, and drummer Sean Kinney -- call their new release Dirt, and that's important. The twelve (or thirteen, we'll get to that) penetrating songs spiral inward to the band's own frustrations. "Them Bones," the album's first single, concerns itself with what Cantrell calls "the brutal realities of life." The title track, penned by Staley, serves to help him release some of the anger. "I call this my revenge," he says matter-of-factly. "It's about someone who treated me like dirt, and now she's in the dirt." His revenge is taken to the extreme -- the cover of the album features a depiction of a woman morbidly staring up as she sinks into the cold, cold ground. Talking about it, Staley laughs at this brutal reality.
Staley's artistic contribution goes further than the suggestion for the cover art. His own drawings (of a sun and other icons) appear inside the album. The band, Staley says, was unhappy with the artwork on their first album, Facelift, and decided to do things their way this time, using drawings originally made for a band T-shirt.
A recurring theme in the music of Alice in Chains is drug addiction. Songs such as "Sickman," "Junkhead," and "God Smack" bring the complex issue to the dirt surface. "Angry Chair," another Staley piece, is testimony about his own confrontation with unbalancing chemicals. "It's about sitting in a little studio apartment in L.A. after I quit doing drugs," he explains soberly. "I wanted to get high, but knew I couldn't do it. So I wrote a song about it." Staley's turn away from drugs came when he decided that he was "sick and tired of being sick and tired," a cliche, yes, but also a brutal reality.
Although Dirt's lyrics explore the band members' frustrations and depressing experiences, and are grounded in reality, the album is nonetheless receiving airplay on MTV and radio. The band even appeared in the recently released Cameron Crowe movie Singles, playing the song "Would ?." "Usually people don't listen to the words," Staley says with a chuckle. "So we can get away with what we say. But when they do hear what the songs are about, they usually pull it [off the air]."
Alice in Chains's music is not overpowered by the lyrics, but rather, complemented by the raw, crunching sound of Cantrell's guitar, a kind of mongrel mix of Black Sabbath and early Metallica, with a wee touch of Slayer. Though not listed in the credits of the first pressing of the new album (it will be named on the second), "Iron Man," a 45-second blitz sandwiched between "God Smack" and "Hate to Feel," features Tom Araya, Slayer's thrash-metal vocalist. "Tom's a good friend of ours," Staley says. "So we asked him to come down and scream his butt off."
The band is gaining popularity slowly, but the speed of that vague process doesn't bother Staley. "We didn't start out with a formula to reach success," he says. "The way it's goin' is fine. It gives us time to adjust to the insanity of the music business. You know -- the media, tabloid bullshit. If you get a hit song right away, and everyone likes you, then there's a lot of pressure to keep it up. I couldn't handle that." Brutal. Reality.
ALICE IN CHAINS performs with Gruntruck and Screaming Trees after 8:00 p.m. Friday at the Edge, 200 W Broward Blvd, Ft Lauderdale, 525-9333. Tickets cost $14 and $16.
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