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BLAH, BLAH, BLAH : When It Comes to the Genre of Gloom and Doom, Alice in Chains Is a Heavyweight

April 08, 1993|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

Seldom is heard an encouraging word from bands whose home is the hard-rock range of the Pacific Northwest.

From Pearl Jam one can expect titanic melancholy; from Nirvana gloom with an ironic bite. Soundgarden deals in loudly aggressive depression. But Alice in Chains is by far the Seattle scene's champion of the blahs.

The band's latest album, "Dirt," scrapes bottom with a litany of complaints sung from a deep pit of despair, self-loathing and never-ending woe. But moroseness pays these days: "Dirt" has turned to platinum on the sales charts, and Alice in Chains' concert Monday at UC Irvine's Bren Events Center (with opening bands Masters of Reality and Circus of Power) is sold out. What's more, Alice will ride the lucrative Lollapalooza caravan this summer.

Alice's songwriters, singer Layne Staley and guitarist Jerry Cantrell, seem chained in an emotional black hole by what the poet William Blake called "mind-forg'd manacles"--and there is no hint on "Dirt" that these guys have any Houdini escape tricks up their sleeves.

The album is almost unrelievedly baleful, all the more so because Alice seldom departs from its staple sound: Staley baying in his grainy, chip-off-old-Jim Morrison's-block voice, while the rest of the band provides trudging brontosaurus beats and ill-defined slabs of distortion-encrusted guitar.

Now, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with depressive rock. There are gloomy classics whose dark beauty, intensity of feeling and imaginative reach call forth a response that's deeply empathetic, even cathartic.

Among these are Neil Young's wake-like "Tonight's the Night," Big Star's quietly bereft "Sister Lovers" and Lou Reed's sordid "Berlin."

"Smash Your Head Against the Wall," a regrettably out-of-print 1971 solo album by the Who's bassist, John Entwistle, manages to color black moods with black humor while packing a wallop that makes it an imposing granddaddy to today's grunge rock.

As for Alice in Chains, its despair is so melodramatic and unchanging that it verges on self-parody. Verses such as "What the hell am I, leper from inside . . . dirty and diseased" (from "Sickman") and "I want you to kill me and dig me under, I want to live no more" (from "Dirt") are not momentary dips into depression. They're the norm, the numbing signature of the band's thought.

A good deal of the album reflects on singer Staley's bouts with heroin abuse. If nothing else, it should serve as a stiff warning against the perils of hard drugs: Indulge as Staley has, and you might turn into the sort of one-note bore that he's made of himself on "Dirt."

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