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Monday, 20 August 2012

Alice in Chains - Dirt (1992)

One of the first genres of music I really got into of my own volition was grunge. When I was 11, I was obsessed with bands like Nirvana, Hole, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, Screaming Trees and Mudhoney. I was pretty blinkered at this point in my life and would only listen to bands that had guitars, and preferably had a grungy, angsty strain to their sound.

For someone who was so into grunge, it now seems pretty odd that Alice in Chains passed me by during that period, and I only bought the album in a charity shop in Penrith in Summer 2010 when I was writing up my PhD. There must have been some strange psychological need to feel carefree and young again, but for a while I was listening to a lot of grunge again, and rebuying albums that I’d sold years before, or buying ones that I had overlooked or not owned physical copies of before.

I’m not sure how it happened, but from the birth of Napster and Audio Galaxy, until the closure of Oink, my CD collection had been neglected. I’d bought so few albums in that decade that I could probably count on two hands how many I actually bought. I had embraced internet piracy and enjoyed a barrage of free and limitless music. The advantages to this are obvious: I could, on a whim, think ‘ooh, I wonder what these guys sound like’, and within a few minutes have the album loaded onto my MP3 player. There were disadvantages too, ones which I never realised at the time, but have since become quite apparent. Firstly, the music became more transitory and less meaningful. If I didn’t like an album on the first listen, I’d probably just delete it; some of my favourite albums of the past have been growers, only becoming great once they had settled in my mind. Secondly, I downloaded far too much music to appreciate. I had a half-terabyte external hard drive that was always full – I realised I had become an archivist rather than a music-lover. Thirdly, I was listening to music differently: with a CD, you are forced to listen to a collection of a band’s music, usually recorded in a short period of time, with an overarching intention in mind. I would find myself listening to music on my MP3 player on random. Between 2004-2009, I owned a 40 gigabyte Creative Zen Touch, and would always listen to the player (which was always full) on random. It was full of bands and music that I was unfamiliar with; I remember having the vague notion that I could get into all of this new music if I just stumbled across it while listening on random – I didn’t.

When I accidently plugged my photo-printer plug into my external hard drive, and it started to smell all burny and never worked again - I was gutted. I’d spent half a decade collecting and cataloguing music and now it was all lost. What I felt was a catastrophe at the time, I now see as a blessing. In a strange way it liberated me. I found myself buying music again, enjoying albums in their entirety, actually getting into bands and falling in love with music again. Many people go on about the importance of owning the actual physical format: for me it wasn’t about that, it was about the way I listened to music that was important, and for some reason owning the physical copy of an album made me give more time to it.

When I was drawn back to grunge, I came to conclusion that it must have been a nostalgia thing. I couldn’t get into albums that I hadn’t heard before. Pearl Jam’s Ten was quickly sent back to the charity after only a couple of weeks – they were a band that never interested me when I was younger, and it seemed my new found love of grunge didn’t extend to bands I hadn’t been into before. Alice in Chains’ Dirt suffers from the same problem. I’m sure that if I’d been listening to this as an 11 year old, I’d still love it today – unfortunately this was not the case. Album opener ‘Them Bones’ is an awesome piece of music. The slow, deliberate driving rhythm of the verse is in a 7/8 timing, which is very rare to hear in a rock song. The resulting progression sounds exciting and different, a little off-beat, a little disconcerting – a great way to grab your attention. Alas, this is as interesting as the album gets, with most of the other songs sounding incredibly generic, the throaty drawled vocals and heavy metal riffs just seem a bit tired. ‘Rooster’ offers a nice change of pace, with its dreamy guitars and vocal harmonies building into full-blown Sabbath-inspired rock. ‘Junkhead’ takes us back into the realms of generic rock: this is the album’s token Eastern-sounding song, with its Arabic magam guitar riff sounding like something you’d hear in a Turkish restaurant, albeit with a wah pedal and some overdrive thrown in. ‘Down in a Hole’ is another highlight of the album: it’s much softer in feel than every other track and is filled with angst and emotion. The vocal harmonies in this song show Alice in Chains at their most sensitive and heartfelt, and easily the most evocative performance on the album.

With only two decent tracks, it seems pointless keeping the entire album. I will definitely have to download ‘Them Bones’ and ‘Down in a Hole’, but the album in its entirety just isn’t good enough to justify keeping, especially when a charity shop can benefit so much from my good will: yes, I am a modern day Mother Theresa.





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