Jerry Cantrell – Degradation Trip Volumes 1 & 2

May 13, 2006

Grunge seems to be something that a lot of music fans care to put behind them. Every once and a while I will hear a purist talk about how much the 80s rocked and how much the 90s sucked, and I want set their gonads on fire. But yeah, grunge did fizzle out maybe a little over ten years ago. And no one is going to pretend that the tragic death of Kurt Cobain didn’t have anything to do with it. Whether or not it actually did though is another story. But from late 1993 to 1995, alternative rock led by the grunge genre had it’s final, glorious stand. More good albums came out in that timeframe than I can count. Seriously, let me just try. Nirvana with In Utero and Unplugged, Alice in Chains with Jar of Flies and s/t, Soundgarden with Superunknown, Hole with Live Through This, Mudhoney with My Brother The Cow, Pearl Jam with Vs. and Vitalogy, Stone Temple Pilots with Purple, Radiohead with The Bends… I’m stopping there, but it really goes on. For a looooong time. It seems like every other week I find another great classic album that came out around then, no joke. I may have summarized some of the better ones, but don’t think that’s it.

Yeah, Kurts death led to the downfall of grunge, but it didn’t immediately cause it, because a lot of classic grunge and alternative albums came out after his death, actually. Anyway, by 1996, for all intents and purposes, grunge had done it’s damage, and it’s time was up. In the mid to late 90s, it just fizzled out. Which is okay, because it did do a buttload of damage over a timeframe spanning almost ten years, when you really think about how early it started. One of the most focal of the great alternative bands of the 90s was Alice in Chains. Today, only two members of the big four remain. Pearl Jam, and the newly reunited remaining members of Alice in Chains. At first, I asked myself, can they even do that? Can they even have Alice in Chains without Layne Staley?

Then I thought about it some more, and yes, I think they can. While Layne surely was the icing on the cake and what really made Alice special, Jerry Cantrell was the backbone. The substance. He wrote a majority of the bands better songs. Don’t get me wrong, Layne was very very important. He wrote some good songs himself, and most of the best Alice in Chains songs are a result of both Jerry and Laynes songwriting. But as far as songwriting goes, Jerry is clearly the most skilled and important. Just looking at his latest work, the collection of both volumes of Degradation Trip, shows that he really does have some great skills going for him. All of the lyrics on the album have Jerry singing, which is great, because he does have a great voice. It’s impossible to get the same kind of range and skill that Layne had in his singing. You just can’t do it. But Jerry still has his own thing going in his voice. It’s very smooth. And the best is when you hear Layne and Jerry singing together in a song. It doesn’t happen too often, but when it does, WOW. Anyway, Degradation Trip Volumes 1& 2 is a big collection spanning two disks of pain, anguish and rage. Which is great, because Jerry clearly works best when he focuses on the negative, as far as music goes.

Psychotic Break kicks it off, and is a swirling downward spiral into the rest of the album, and a great song to boot. Bargain Basement Howard Hughes is one of the weaker songs on the album actually, which is a shame considering how early on it comes. Owned is when you really see stuff start to materialize. You start to see how much that guitar plays in. It’s crunchy, it’s looming, it’s powerful. And then there is a pattern of aggressive crunching guitar in the verses, and beautiful tunes in the choruses. Owned does that too, and it shows that even a song about a prostitute can be great. Angel Eyes is a standout tune, because of it’s great layered structure, and also because it is quite obviously about Layne. A lot of these songs clearly are, and this is the best one. This is a perfect example of how grunge would not be dead if people tried to look a little harder. This should have been a staple of the radio when it came out maybe two years ago. Solitude is a nice quiet ballad. Mother’s Spinning in Her Grave (Glass Dick Jones) is a really interesting one. Clearly some kind of sequel of sorts to Godsmack, a song that Alice produced on Dirt back in ’92. The name of that song gave birth to a metal band of today named Godsmack. Yeah, they are supposed to suck, but whatever. Remember, this is not the grunge you may remember from back in the early 90s, and while it is in fact clearly grunge, it’s still harder to register. I had that problem at first too. Because this seems like it’s a half and halt type thing. Half homegrown grunge, and half metal. Given enough time, you start to understand the metal aspects more. You also have to get to know the songs individually well enough, and when you do, the album starts to open up more. Hellbound is a sprawling piece on, well, probably what’s in the name. It’s got a nice riff, but it’s hard to listen to for six minutes anyway. It’s companion song is Spiderbite. They are both good, but kind of difficult. Once you understand them, they get better. Pro False Idol is the single from the album, and the only one that made any significant radio play. It’s a good song, that much is true, but as far as material goes, you can do better on the album. It’s about Layne too, and the chorus is irresistible, so it’s understandable how it got it’s glory. Feel the void is strange. It’s very quiet, and does a lot of strange quiet sound effects throughout. It’s more of an experience track than the rest, as it really creates an atmosphere as opposed to making any riffs or metal guitars. Locked On is one of the better ones. It’s gnarled verses complement the great choruses once again. Might actually be about Layne too. Gone is a quiet acoustic piece to pull it all together.

But forget that, now we have the second disk. The album was originally released with just the first disk and was known as Degradation Trip because Jerry could only get signed on to a minor record company, which doesn’t make any sense to me. You would think anyone would sign Jerry on. I guess not… Anyway, the company didn’t want to release the double album right away for some reason. So they struck a deal that they would release just volume 1 first and then both at once the next year. The second disk isn’t just b-sides or second rate tracks. It’s part of the body of the entire album. Mr. Cantrells original intent was to release both at once anyway. The slow trudging of Castaway is very painful even to listen to. It makes you feel sad and lonely just to hear it. But that kind of power is good. Chemical Tribe is more great Cantrell riffing with the same kind of pattern you know by now, which is good. What It Takes a great one, for many reasons. The acoustic guitar and feeling of the drums is very organic. The second disk follows a lot of this pattern. I said before that it’s all one big body of music, which is true, but both disks still have their own personalities. While the first disk might have been anger and rage, the second is probably loneliness and alienation. Dying Inside once again breaks out the acoustic guitar. Nothing too special though. Keep in mind that I haven’t listened to each track a thousand times. Some I have gotten to know better than others. It’s possible, I guess, that I’m missing the best ones by not understanding each one really well. But this is another one about Layne, and it’s not more than mediocre. It’s followed up by Siddhartha and it’s genuine creep. That ones great. Next is Hurts, Don’t it? which is more alienation. It’s good though. She Was My Girl really stands out as one of the best songs off of both disks. While the first disk still had traces of loneliness on it, this disk still has traces of anger on it. This song is also irresistible, and has a great angry chorus. The echo effect really works itself in here, and the aggressive nature does wonders. Which is strange, considering it’s probably the most harmless track on the entire album. It’s about a relationship, but as charged as it is, it almost doesn’t seem like it’s too negative. Pig Charmer is another highlight, and another tune about Layne, clearly. It’s slow, but it finds it’s power in the lyrics and also in slow moving guitars. Pretty much all the lyrics on the album are good. Jerry still knows how to make poetry without being too sappy or detaching himself from the music too much. Anger Rising also had a video, but I never saw it. It’s hard to listen to, because it’s about abuse, but it has probably the single most catchy and likeable music out of any song on the album. It’s immediately accessible and brings together the worlds of grunge and metal perfectly. S.O.S. is another meh one. It’s very quiet and acoustic, sort of creeping along progressively. But Give It A Name is absolutely fantastic. It reminds me of Over Now, because the verses are pretty happy and mellow, but then for the chorus, it transforms into something more dark and smooth and alienating. Very good. Thanks Anyway is yet another meh, but only because by this time, the listener has already heard everything it has to offer. The guitar part here is so crunchy and nondescript… It’s one of the few bad songs on this album. 31/32 is much like Gone, but better, in my opinion. It’s slow and acoustic, major but sad, also about Layne. It’s hard to listen to. There, I said it. But that is usually because when you think Jerry Cantrell, you don’t like to think about sad endings like this. But it’s still a classic song.

So this is where music doesn’t suck, and it’s hard to find releases like this in this day and age. It’s such a shame that the heroes of grunge are today labeled as post-grunge, as if the movement was just some kind of phase. I’ll have you know that this is a classic grunge album, even if it is ten years late. It’s still great stuff, and Jerry Cantrell is a genious.

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