Review Summary: This album's a mess... but y'know what? It's a glorious mess.
When it comes to grunge music, Alice in Chains always seemed to be the oddball of the scene (along with Soundgarden to an extent). Even though they're part of the Big 4 of the genre alongside bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, their doom-oriented riffs and downright depressing vibe took their sound to a different level completely. Obviously contributing to this is the band's personal history and involvement with drugs (of course leading to lead singer Layne Staley's death later on), but the group never lost sight of what made people love them for in the first place: the music. However, things took a turn for the worse when this very record came out. Revealing the band's pain and Layne's growing heroin addiction in full bloom, the band's self-titled displays them at their most vulnerable and hopeless. However, that is part of what makes the record so great in the long run.
With twelve songs and clocking in at over an hour, this is certainly a longer affair than the band's 1992 landmark album Dirt. Many of the songs are quite long, as they take time to let the listener bask in their gloomy atmosphere. "Sludge Factory," "Frogs," and "Over Now" all surpass the seven-minute mark, presumably for that very reason. The album has more grunge influences than Dirt did, but it also has an emphasis on doom metal and a distorted vibe all the same. There are some faster tracks such as "So Close," the aforementioned "Over Now," "Brush Away," and "Head Creeps," but they all maintain the gloomy vibe of the overall record. This album is usually the biggest point of contention between fans when it comes to the genre label, but I think the closest it gets is "grunge," "doom metal," and "sludge metal."
The doom metal-oriented songs offer some of the best material on the album. "Sludge Factory" in particular is a fantastic track, with a murky riff and a very bizarre falsetto sound that appears on its motif. About halfway in, after Layne is done singing the last chorus, the song starts to linger as it builds up distortion. An robotic voice comes in and gives a philosophical speech before uttering the final words, "Your weapon is guilt." From then on, things get even stranger; the song speeds up slightly and some very dissonant guitar melodies start popping up out of nowhere. The song real shows how twisted the band's music was at this point in their career, but remains a very well-composed song nonetheless. The same can be said for such similarly dark numbers as "Frogs" and "God Am." The former has an extremely barren dissonant riff and throws the listener off by switching its tempo and rhythm multiple times, while the latter has one of the best harmonized choruses I've heard in a long time. It's tragic and beautiful at the same time, really. Finally, there's the beginning track "Grind." Most people seem to rave over this song; I think it's good, but not really the best the album has to offer. It just sounds like the average Alice in Chains track. Beginning with a Black Sabbath-style riff, the song definitely fits a title like "Grind" well. Giving a distorted effect to guitarist Jerry Cantrell's vocals and providing a wealth of chilling lyrics, the song definitely sets the tone for the rest of the album.
The ballads and fast songs are also great for the most part. "Shame in You" is my personal favorite when it comes to the ballads, taking the vibe of 1992's "Down in a Hole" but using more harmonized vocals and a slower tempo to achieve its desired effect. "Heaven Beside You " is great too, having a slight Nirvana-style sound to it while retaining the traditional Alice in Chains sound. The chorus combines beautiful harmonized vocals and a soft acoustic melody; it sounds as if it could have been on the band's previous EP Jar of Flies. As for the fast tunes, there are quite a few. The best would have to be "Head Creeps," "So Close" (yeah yeah, I'll explain), and album closer "Over Now." "Head Creeps" is sort of a standard midtempo Alice in Chains song, but the harmonized vocals in the prechorus and the foreboding guitar melodies really nail it. "So Close" seems to be the black sheep of the album, the one everybody thinks is a throwaway. Personally, I'm a bit baffled as to why that is. This is one of the strongest tracks on the album; it's short, but has many swift tempo changes and a lot of variety in general. The song starts off as a fast, distorted mess, but once the chilling falsetto vocals and sludgy guitar work in the chorus kick in, the song gets pretty fantastic. "Over Now" is a really odd closer, mixing a positive (!) guitar riff with some depressing-sounding vocals from Jerry Cantrell. This is another song that's more drawn out, but that can work to its favor; the song certainly feels epic, and it definitely gives a sense of closure to the album.
With all of the positive remarks, you'd think this album would be perfect; sadly, it's not. As was said before, this album is depressing... but it goes beyond that. It's depressing to the point that a funeral doom band could have created it, and thus it is extremely hard to sit through at times. Not only that, but some songs are indeed throwaways; "Brush Away" especially comes to mind. While the song's clean guitar motif is pretty cool and ominous, the song seems pretty aimless and loses direction about halfway into its runtime. "Again" is similarly uninspired-sounding and just not very interesting; it's another midtempo song in the vein of "Brush Away" and has distorted vocals similar to "Grind," but it just doesn't seem to go anywhere and the chorus is a little to muddy-sounding.
So yeah, this album is depressing, not for the faint of heart, and occasionally a little inconsistent. However, the stuff that's done well is done REALLY well. The vocals are emotional, the compositions are strong, and even if there's a weak song to trudge through, there's always something more rewarding around the corner. The lyrics are always great too, reflecting the state of the band at the time of the recording. If you can't handle depressing music, then this is definitely not for you; at the same time, though, if you want a very solid piece of grunge/metal history with a keen ear for detail and strong melodies, you should really enjoy this. It's not the best Alice in Chains album, but certainly an excellent one nonetheless.