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“Alice in Chains: An Album So Slow it Can Barely Be Detected by the Human Ear in 2020”


Starting in about 1997 or so, Comedy Central (which was at that point I think still a pretty new entity) would air this show called Sports Night. The premise of the show, which was in the format of a 30-minute sit com [1] sans canned background laughter, was a behind-the-scenes look at a fictitious show called “Sports Night” — so while the running of the show-within-the-show was one component, the bulk of the primary screenplay pertained to the individuals responsible for getting the production rolling.

Just to get to the point, the show was pretty fast-pace — not gaudily skittish like a Bob’s Burgers [2] but brisk enough that it resembled New York, its setting, and prompt enough to whet the attention of the viewing masses, if you will [3]. So when one of the star anchormen quips during a time of especial desperation that “I might go like two minutes without saying something funny,” it really cuts to the bone.

Alice in Chains in the mid-’90s were a band that wasn’t trying to fit a cultural mold. They were operating at a frequency of cognition which in this day seems entirely antiquated — they had no intentions of ENTERTAINING you, that is, and today to hear the deliberate, meticulous grooves of their self-titled EP, the final one with singer Layne Staley who would OD in ’02 and which depicts them limping to the finish in the form of a bedraggled three-legged dog, is to seemingly step into a time capsule into an era that was different in music. There was a keen, punctilious respect for the form which allowed for the evasion of gimmick, of “personality.” Actually, I even cheated and looked at the liner notes, the lyrics. They didn’t have to print those. The angular rhetoric like “I try to get away / And yet I stick around / So fall and crawl away / And brush away loose ground” and “Once again you see an in / Discolored skin gives you away / So afraid you kindly gurgle / Out a date for me” would be even more inscrutable, esoteric and spooky.

I just listened to it in the car, coming home from work, at dusk. And it’s a nighttime album if nothing else or it’s a Halloween or winter album. This is not an LP you’d put on at 1 pm at a cottage cookout (though for some of the more misanthropic metalheads out there I could maybe abide Dirt for such an occasion but let’s just say I wouldn’t drink any of the punch for fear of there being acid in it).

And the opener, “Grind,” seems to stretch on for eons. It’s like going through an entire heroin high. Actually, in reverse of what many hipsters would think would be the synthesis, PJ Harvey ripped off the riff of this song for her Uh Huh Her opener, with all due credit to that artist in particular [4].

You get through the bulbous, three-verse structure, all the gorgeous, sublime choruses with their impeccable background vocals from Jerry Cantrell, and you’re almost exhausted, but it’s only the beginning.

“Brush away” and “Sludge Factory” each hit hard, as I allude to earlier, in their own way. Lead single “Heaven beside You” a little bit tamer of a beast but still has got those jagged introductory guitar riffs that almost find a way to be funky in all their grunge grit.

Things really get going on “Head Creeps,” though, arguably Alice in Chains’ best song. The track is bulwarked by this uncannily trippy vocal combining the erratic rhythmic interface of emphasizing the sixth eighth note of each bar (or the third up-beat of the four-beat bar, if you prefer… sorry to get all egg-headed on you) and the fact that it seems completely atonal but also to court a certain PITCH, as if it’s a plotted-out rap that dictates exact, precise frequencies of depth, along with the rhythmic scheme. In tandem, Layne Staley makes this song run along with Jerry Cantrell, whose palm-muted metal axe jabs lay down a grunge rubric that seems as lithe and light on its feet as it is crushing and cathartic, which is to say considerably so. “Again” is the radio grunge token sure to be derided by some critics as the “obvious single,” and wrongfully so (though yes it might actually be the obvious single), because not many songs emphasize the SECOND and the NINTH notes in a guitar riff, all while spraying out boisterous grunge rancor on the eighth notes and never missing a beat. I got out of the car for “Shame in You,” a slow, teeming gem with the haunting chorus “My sins I claim / Give you back champagne / You’ll find a place for your shame / So you can deal / With this thing unreal / No one made you feel any hurt”. Alice in Chains was essentially the band’s swan song, their “journey to the end of the night” [5] with Layne Staley [6], and what they gave us was 12 tracks of multifarious, uncompromising and undeniably bilious alternative rock, rock that moves at the molasses-like pace of the ’90s, rock that knows no age of downloading and ordering pizza online, rock that smacks of idolatry in its blue suede, diamond-soled shoes of the mind.

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[1] Just for bookkeeping purposes I have Sports Night slotted third-best sit com of the ’90s behind Seinfeld and The Simpsons, slotted right ahead of King of the Hill and Married with Children.

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[2] Part of my point in this post is what I perceive as a certain impatience on the part of our culture maybe since 9/11 or so — a need to have comedic or dramatic segments develop really rapidly, lest a sort of artificial ennui should rear its ugly head.

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[3] I remember my dad complimentarily remarking of an episode of The Simpsons circa 1992 — “Man, this show moves FAST.”

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[4] And related to this, amusingly, and also regarding the mid-’90s, I tend to make the pretty frequent comment of “Long Snake Moan” being the music that Soundgarden was TRYING to make.

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[5] This is my reference to the title of a Louis-Ferdinand Celine novel which I consider a must-read along with its companion piece Death on the Installment Plan.

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[6] Alice in Chains without Layne Staley is not Alice in Chains. It might be even more absurd than trying to re-erect Blind Melon without Shannon Hoon and sugar that’s sayin’ somethin’.

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