Review Summary: An excellent first step for Cantrell as a solo artist and a great table setter for the crushing Degradation Trip.
Regarded by many as the lost Alice in Chains album, Boggy Depot is a strong record that showcases the consistently excellent songwriting efforts of Jerry Cantrell, many of whom consider to be the mastermind behind AIC’s grinding but undeniably melodic sound. With the revival of Alice in Chains in the last several years and the release of two very strong records, it’s interesting to look back at Cantrell when Alice was in the midst of their hiatus and he reluctantly began his solo career in the late 90’s. The album undoubtedly builds on many of Alice’s distinct qualities, but Cantrell seems content to stretch his legs here, working not only in heavy riff territory but also dabbling in country, piano driven material, and even including the use of horns and saxophone on the final cut “Cold Piece.” The album expands on Cantrell’s harmonic vocabulary but without sacrifice of his vintage trademarks, those being crunchy riffs, intelligent lead playing, and arrangements that weave electric and acoustic textures to maximize atmospheric effect.
Without Layne Staley on board to add his own elemental style, the record unfolds with its own sense of aesthetics and the vision of a songwriter who knows he can freely pursue his indulgences. Cantrell’s trademarks as a composer and player are more noticeable here without the presence of an overwhelmingly powerful lead vocalist, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Boggy Depot isn’t quite as emotionally gripping or memorable as previous Alice efforts, but it’s a clear sign of a talented guitarist/songwriter/vocalist that’s operating right within the framework of his creative wheelhouse. For those that would continue to follow Cantrell prior to the reformation of Alice in Chains, Boggy Depot is the perfect preamble to the behemoth double album Degradation Trip that Cantrell would unleash four years later.
As my brother was instrumental in keeping me updated with the latest rock efforts in my pre-teen and teenage years, I remember the first time I heard Boggy Depot. The album opens with a complete riff extravaganza in “Dickeye,” a tune that truly captures the essence of Cantrell’s style. After a clunky twenty five second intro, Cantrell unleashes into a galloping mid tempo riff that bristles with Alice like distortion but is professional in its tonal quality. Cantrell lets rip a multitude of solos in the song, all of which gracefully fly over the main riff and perfectly coordinate themselves with the heavy underbelly of the lead melody. It is unmistakably Cantrell, a player who never looks to overwhelm you solely with colossal amplification like a Zakk Wylde would, but prefers to characterize his riffs and solos with a sense of texture and phrasing that is often missing in this brand of heavy rock. “Dickeye” distills Cantrell’s virtues as a player to their essence thanks to its crunchy but organic tonal qualities.
After the riffing onslaught of “Dickeye,” the album immediately begins to open up its broader character. Lead single “Cut You In” focuses on a seasick acoustic riff from Cantrell that is aided with plenty of electric guitar flourishes and detours in the realm of “Dickeye” but with subtler restraint and less volume. “My Song” is a moody track with an extremely simple up and down melody that maintains its drive even as Cantrell’s vocal crescendos and guitar solos are constantly adding subtle shades of sonic qualities to the track. These sonic trademarks initially take a backseat to the piano driven ballad “Settling Down,” but are later revealed during a beautiful open solo by Cantrell, only to be hauled back into the pit during the song’s bombastic apex. Cantrell relies more on an introspective guitar approach here along with a winding bass line, relaxing the listener and setting the stage for the heavy middle third of the album.
“Breaks My Back,” “Jesus Hands,” “Devil by His Side,” and “Keep the Light On” move back into more of a “Dickeye” sense of familiarity with their heavy lead riffs and maximum distortion. The effect is still fresh. “Keep The Light On” distinguishes itself with its heavy verse and soft chorus before finally exploding in electric mayhem at song’s end with an accompanied powerful vocal from Cantrell. “Breaks My Back” relies on watery vocals from Cantrell and subtle electric leads, while “Devil by His Side” is an upbeat track that contains the most inventive chorus on the album. Cantrell’s parched but earnest vocal approach is on full display here and throughout the album, proving he is more than capable of handling lead vocal duties for a full album. (However, he would step up his game even further on Degradation Trip.)
The closing foursome of “Satisfy,” “Hurt a Long Time” “Between,” and “Cold Piece” move away from the crushing heaviness of the previous four tracks with their less overtly bleak dynamics and varied tonal variety. “Between” is a beautiful country rocker whose sparkling electric leads could have easily carried the song on the radio had this album gotten an iota of mainstream attention. “Satisfy” is moodier along the lines of “My Song” but with more of a mid tempo groove on the chorus and melancholic vocal work from Cantrell. “Hurt a Long Time” is a straight ahead ballad Cantrell style, while “Cold Piece” is a strangely fascinating cacophony of tempo changes, dynamic guitar solos, and blaring horns/saxophone.
While not a definitive work in the Cantrell discography, Boggy Depot is a welcome addition. There is no doubt that the addition of Layne Staley would have added a colossal vocal dimension to these tracks, but Cantrell proves he is a versatile enough artist to craft an album where his talents are the lead attraction. While not the pummeling listening experience of the later Degradation Trip, this album sets the stage for that titanic work. It’s not as cohesive or as poignant as the Trip, but it’s a perfect portrait of where Cantrell was at in the late 90’s with Alice on what seemed to be a permanent sabbatical. It’s a great collection of organic riffs and sonic textures, expressive lead playing, and carefully crafted arrangements that recall what we all loved about Alice’s previous output. Although an unheralded release, Boggy Depot helps cement Cantrell’s legacy as one of the better heavy rock craftsmen of his generation, a fact he would hammer home with pounding fervor on the draining, enthralling double disc Degradation Trip.