SOUNDGARDEN – DOWN ON THE UPSIDE (1996)

ALICE IN CHAINS – ALICE IN CHAINS (1995)

November 7th, 1995, Alice In Chains released their third, self-titled, full-length album (commonly referred to as Tripod) through Columbia Records. If Alice in Chains’ previous album, Dirt, was the sound of a band fighting for its soul, this one was like walking through its wreckage towards the inevitable end. The crushing existential weight of Dirt seemed prophetic as its doom-laden darkness seeped into the fibre of the band itself and the first casualty was the original bassist, Mike Starr.

Shortly after ‘Dirt’ launched them into the stratosphere, Mike Starr exited the band. At the time, his departure was explained as a “difference of priorities,” but he would reveal years later that his struggles with addiction led to his expulsion. During this time, Layne Staley’s drug problems were in full swing, so much so the band had to cancel several shows during the album’s release tour, and Starr wasn’t much better off.

Starr’s departure from Alice in Chains occurred while they were on tour, with the breaking point occurring at the Hollywood Rock Festival in Brazil in 1993. Mike had a near-fatal overdose, which Layne managed to revive him from. Susan Silver, the band’s manager, revealed that Starr’s actions were continuously putting the band in legal jeopardy, with drug use and the sale of backstage passes outside venues being among his transgressions.

At the time of his departure, Staley said Mike was let go for “a difference of priorities,” with Starr having grown tired of touring and wanting to return home while the band wanted to do what bands do: tour. They quickly drafted in former Ozzy Osborne bassist Mike Inez, whom they had met when they opened shows for Ozzy in 1992.

In January 1995, Jerry Cantrell, bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney began jamming on material Cantrell was writing for a new release. In the spring of 1995, Layne was invited to join the writing sessions after he’d completed a stint in rehab, which began that January of that year. In April 1995, Alice in Chains entered Bad Animals Studio in Seattle with producer Toby Wright, who had previously worked with Corrosion of Conformity and Slayer to begin work on a follow-up to Dirt.

Layne’s sobriety didn’t last; during the recording of the album, he slipped severely back into heroin addiction and was often late or absent for recording and rehearsal sessions. “Before recording began, we made one final statement to the press when we decided to break the lines of communication,” said Jerry Cantrell. “We were an overloaded sponge that needed to be wrung out. We seriously needed the time to sit down and start fresh. That’s what we did.”

The band’s manager, Susan Silver, said, “It was an excruciating session because it took so long. It was horrifying to see Layne in that condition. Yet, when he was cognizant, he was the sweetest, bright-eyed guy you’d ever want to meet. To meet with him and have him fall asleep in front of you was gut-wrenching.”

The band finished recording in August 1995. Cantrell said, “It was often depressing, and getting it done felt like pulling hair out, but it was the coolest thing, and I’m glad to have gone through it.” Perhaps the heaviest effort of the band’s career, Tripod is a bleak but far from hopeless album, featuring an addictive batch of grinding tunes offset with mellower and vaguely experimental material.

The iconic opener, “Grind,” is as heavy as anything the band has ever recorded. Driven by a crushing, Iommi-esque guitar riff, surly designed to flatten buildings, and beautifully twisted harmonies by Staley and Cantrell. Layne sings the first line of the song with a haunting malevolence, “In your darkest hole, you’d be well-advised not to plan my funeral before the body dies.” which sets the tone for the entire record while firing shots at the media who were rampantly stoking the flames of the rumour mill surrounding the band at this time.

“Brush Away” opens with a ghostly clean guitar before erupting into a freewheeling heavy glide; Layne sings, “I could use some time to curl away.” Things get guttural as the chorus finds a thick groove and extra levels of heavy guitar and bass filth; Layne implores, “I try to get away. And yet, I stick around. So fall and crawl away, And brush away loose ground.”

The onomatopoeically titled “Sludge Factory” has a pulverising chug; Layne sounds despondent as he delivers some truly harrowing tales from the dark side, “You insult me in my home, you’re forgiven this time. Things go well; your eyes dilate, you shake, and I’m high. Look in my eyes deep and watch the clouds change with time. Twenty hours won’t print my picture milk carton size.” For a song so bleak in its tone and content, musically, the chorus offers some relief as it transitions to a lighter feel, as if bursting to the surface for a gulp of air before being dragged to the depths again.

“Heaven Beside You” translates the weariness of being in a destructive relationship and could be viewed as a commentary on Jerry Cantrell’s relationship with Staley. Sung by Jerry, “Heaven Beside You” draws from the same well Alice In Chains so brilliantly explored on their Sap and Jar Of Flies EPs. Acoustic guitars are to the fore, adding a shimmering jangle. Darkness is never far away, as the song takes a sinister turn with Jerry singing, “So there’s problems in your life. That’s fucked up, and I’m not blind. I’m just see-through, faded, super jaded. And out of my mind.”

Jerry Cantrell slams some glacially heavy chords to open “Head Creeps” as Sean Kinney’s rolling, tribal drum patterns take centre stage. The interplay between the vocal rhythm and instrumentation during the verse is mesmerising, setting the stage for a wicked payoff during the chorus, as Layne sings, “Time to call the doggies off. Tired of the shadowing. Slide me to the side again. Slapped in the face again.” The mixture of dread and galvanising groove is intoxicating, it’s Alice In Chains at their finest.

“Again” is perhaps one of Layne’s most haunting heroin songs, in which he describes the power it has on him like he was talking to an abusive lover over a pile-driving sledgehammer riff. “You made a fool of me again, and again, and again, and again, and again,” Layne desperately pleads. The band ploughs through an instantly memorable syncopated riff.

“Shame In You” is beautifully reflective. A gorgeously weighted song that evokes a wistful pathos without crossing the line into mawkish sentimentality. Jerry whips out some outstanding lead lines that weave between Layne’s contemplative, heart-breaking lyrics.

An album highlight, “God Am”, opens with the sound of a thumb rolling on the wheel of a cigarette lighter several times before igniting; guitar feedback swirls beneath as Layne speaks in a tremolo voice, “Sure God’s all-powerful, but does he have lips? Whoa.” A crushing riff follows, its mammoth chug stutters with an aggressive will. Layne implores God for some reprieve, “Dear God, how have you been then? I’m not fine, fuck pretending. All of this death you’re sending. Best throw some free heart-mending.” His frustration questions whether God cares about our earthly existence.

“So Close” rages with a punk energy before settling into a halftime groove. Guitars slash and thrash over pounding drums; at two and a half minutes, it’s the shortest song on the album, but vital. Cantrell’s playing is always so tight, controlled and devastatingly powerful, but hearing him here, cut loose with shards of noisy abandon and a punk-like zeal is cathartic.

“Nothin’ Song” opens with a jazzy feel accentuated by Sean Kinney’s deft cymbal work. Soon, the band slam in with Kinney’s rolling tom work driving the slow groove. Layne’s vocal melody is hypnotic and unusual. The song’s lyrics seem to reference the difficulties the band were going through while recording the album, in a meta moment, Layne sings, “Began this take at 7: 38. Head hit the board, enough that it aches. Wonder should I be workin’ so late.”

“Frogs,” at eight minutes twenty, was, to that point, Alice In Chains’ longest song. Dark, brooding, but utterly infectious, its melodies are highly contagious, and the overall atmosphere is richly compelling. “What does friend mean to you? A word so wrongfully abused. Are you like me, confused?” fall from Layne’s mouth in a bewildered, foggy haze. The song’s spoken word outro is psychedelic and chilling.

The album closer, “Over Now”, opens with the sound of a distant trumpet as if played on an old 78 shellac. It’s a seven-minute-long funeral for things that might’ve been and things that went awfully wrong. Opening with Cantrell singing: “Yeah, it’s over now. But I can breathe somehow. When it’s all worn out, I’d rather go without”. The simple acoustic setting is shot through with an up lit groove and some beautifully placed electric guitar. All in all, its bounce is offset by an eerie mood.

Listening to Dirt and Tripod back to back, one gets a sense they’re two parts of the same odyssey towards self-destruction. What makes it so powerful is that you know it now in hindsight, but deep down, you knew it then, too. There was something dark gnawing away at these guys. And they made the most of it artistically. They created an anthem of beauty and courage when the world collapsed around them.

But despite the apparent seriousness surrounding the camp, the band were essentially four young, highly talented guys with a wicked sense of humour and a lot of love for each other, “Layne was amazing,” Jerry recalls, “We’d go in the back and play football while he was doing vocal tracks. We’d come back, and he’d have five awesome-sounding vocal tracks cut. Toby (producer Toby Wright) would listen to it and say, ‘I couldn’t have told you to do anything differently.'”

After the release of a new album, bands are supposed to start touring; that’s the cycle: album, tour, album, tour. But despite the album landing at number one on the Billboard charts on release, the band were nowhere to be seen outside of a few rare 1996 performances. Speaking of the album, Jerry said, “It was a number one record; it debuted at number one, and it did well that way, but we didn’t tour it. That’s why probably it’s underrated. We did two and a half years of touring Dirt, and we did two years of touring Facelift. We took it everywhere, we got in everybody’s face with it, but at that particular point, that was when we had decided to take a break because we were pretty burnt out.”

Despite Cantrell’s diplomatic stance, he was frustrated with the situation. In truth, Layne was in no fit state to tour; Cantrell said: “It was very frustrating, but we stuck it out. We rode the good times together, and we stuck together through the hard times. We never stabbed each other in the back and spilt our guts to the press, and do that kind of bullshit that you see happen a lot.”

The album’s front cover features a photo of a three-legged dog (one too few), while the back cover presents a picture of a three-legged mandolinist (one too many), which sums up the strange place Alice In Chains found themselves in at this time. An overabundance of anything (fame, wealth, notoriety) becomes a hindrance, just as a scarcity of essentials (health, happiness, trust) also causes a hindrance. Alice In Chains were on top of the world, but their inner workings were in dire straits. Through this turmoil, they did what great artists do: channel that chaos into great, life-affirming art. Tripod, because of its darkness and struggle, is liberating and enlightening. This was Layne’s last album; he can be proud that he and his band achieved a startling, lasting and palpable impact on the lives of their fans.

Essential…!!