Review Summary: For every “Junkhead,” there is a “Would?” For every “Psychotic Break,” there is a “Gone.”
What was going on in heavy rock music in 2002?
Nu-metal and pop punk was raging, there were a few leftover post-grunge acts fighting for chart space, and heavy metal as a whole seemed to be in a period of decline. From what I remember as a fifteen year old at the time, I was sure my generation would produce no definitive musical statement, nothing that could capture the spirit of the times or provide commentary on the disorienting nature of the era. As I roamed my high school halls, I had to rely more and more on the musical output of previous generations, never quite feeling in touch with the statements of the modern practitioners. Step in Jerry Cantrell and his crushing double album Degradation Trip, a record that despite its massive weight had a deeply worn in melodicism and organic character that was forcefully provocative. For anyone that appreciated AIC’s 90’s output and Cantrell’s initial solo foray on Boggy Depot, none of the quality here should be surprising. Nonetheless, Cantrell had more or less disappeared for a period of years following Boggy Depot, Layne Staley was a ghost and near death, and Alice was more or less defunct. There was no one who came close to filling the stylistic chasm left behind by Alice in Chains, but when Degradation Trip finally appeared, it was clear that Cantrell had returned with a definitive statement. As a result, there are few albums more punishing or harrowing as Degradation Trip.
It should be remembered that Degradation Trip originally appeared as a single album’s worth of material. Cantrell’s record company wasn’t sold on the commercial viability of a double album, but they did promise to release his entire project shortly after they released a couple singles and gave Volume 1 an initial berth into the commercial fray. Anyone who purchased the original album was rewarded handsomely, but the real treat lies in the exploration of Cantrell’s initial intention for the project. The double album version isn’t a haphazard addition of random bonus tracks or varied studio cuts, it’s a full on augmentation of the entire project. It restores Cantrell’s original vision, inputting the tracks left off Volume 1 and putting them in sequence with the songs that appeared on that version. As there is no decline in quality with these tracks since they were meant to be heard in double album format, the effect is remarkable. From beginning to end of this twenty five track bludgeoning, the listener is treated to an endless display of monstrously heavy but groovy riffs, winding acoustic detours and interludes, a pounding rhythm section, concise but always piercing lead guitar flourishes, and an extreme improvement in lead vocal duties from Cantrell. The effect is simultaneously suffocating but cathartic, a true testament to Cantrell’s depth as a guitarist, singer, and songwriter. The album is extremely well produced, thick in sound, and brimming with intoxicatingly heavy ambiance.
Where Layne Staley would have certainly been a vocal help on Boggy Depot, Cantrell’s lead vocal work here can’t be denied. The crawling, sickening riffs that guide “Psychotic Break,” “Bargain Basement Howard Hughes” (a song I’m sure is about Layne Staley), and “Owned” are aided by his increased vocal confidence. He yells and snarls and croons with renewed intensity, making it clear that fourth interval back up harmonies won’t be his bread and butter this time around. “Owned” distinguishes itself with its mammoth riffing and varied vocal delivery, seeing Cantrell snarling with devilish fervor on the verses and opening up with a gentle croon on the chorus. “Angel Eyes” was an excellent single for the album, offering up a lovely respite from the crushing nature of the first three tracks with its inclusion of bright acoustic guitars, electric guitar effects, and upbeat chorus.
Disc one continues with pummeling intensity, with the strongest tracks here being the twisting acoustic lament of “Solitude,” the off kilter crawl of “Hellbound,” and the beautifully country tinged “Gone.” It is an outstanding track, filled with one of Cantrell’s most aching vocal performances, a heavy bass undertow, and remarkable combination of delicate acoustic and electric leads. Its bewildered beauty can only be truly appreciated when one surveys the onslaught that came before it, and that includes the menacing cocaine drug tale of “Spiderbite,” the tortured cry of “Feel the Void,” and the splendidly distorted but triumphant stomp of “Locked On.” “Pro False Idol” may overstay its welcome a bit at over seven minutes in length, but even the distorted chug of its opening riff can’t be denied. All in all, disc one is bookended by the bleak rage of “Psychotic Break” but eventually finds acceptance through the soul searching “Gone,” a tribute to Cantrell’s ability to exorcise his demons through heavy sonic exploration. He eventually finds a reluctant sense of solace amongst the rubble and the effect is startlingly profound. The motif of finding light at the end of the tunnel after walking through heavy fire is the crux of the album’s thematic groundwork. That exploration continues on disc two.
If you’ve made it this far, you will now encounter the seething opening bass line of “Castaway,” a track that slowly builds in intensity as Cantrell stacks on the riffs and soothingly predicts impending doom with lines like “Dusk falls, fading sun, no fire light, memories amplify his plight.” The song eventually explodes but with a sort of restraint as Cantrell vocally closes the track repeating “thin, cold, tired, castaway.” The phenomenal “Chemical Tribe” is up next with its pounding drum/bass intro and massively crunchy riff. Cantrell’s compositional talents are further expounded in the final two minutes of the song as he rhythmically varies the song’s lead riff and adds in distorted melodic accents at the resolution of the riff’s phrase. It shows a sense of precision and understatement that many similar guitarists of his generation never came close to mastering. The song closes with a mad dash race to the finish and a triumphant chorus, bringing a sort of tenacity that underscores the initial elephant foot to the chest feeling of the song. Awesome.
The thematic cohesion continues as disc two rolls along. “Hurts Don’t It?” is the lone instrumental of the album and features some of Cantrell’s most somber, inventive guitar work. “Siddhartha” opens slowly, ominously, and with an Eastern tinge, only to explode in gripping madness on the chorus. “Pig Charmer” is a doom masterpiece and another song presumably about Layne Staley, with its lyrics dealing in the sense of decrepitude that comes from social isolation and self-hatred. The bright and cheery interludes of “31/32” are underscored by its lyrical bleakness, but still Cantrell manages to evoke an uplifting sense of doggedness by song’s end. Lead single “Anger Rising” got a little MTV play with its pounding lead riff and explosive chorus, “Give It a Name” alternates between country stomp and dreamy lament, and “She Was My Girl” adds a lighter touch with its bouncy riff and lively chorus.
Degradation Trip isn’t for everyone and not an album you’ll crank to impress the ladies. However, it is a musical tour de force that explores the musical and lyrical depth of an artist that had already proven more than once that penning anthems dealing in life’s darker tapestries was his true modus operandi. The wonderful thing is that despite the weight of the material on display here, Cantrell consistently showcases his resolve musically and lyrically. Much as I was in doubt about the future at the time of this release, Cantrell is similarly so, but he soldiers on regardless. Through the poignant exploration of his inner demons, Cantrell manages to release them not only in explosive fervor, but also through heart-rending introspection.
This record is a definitive statement for Cantrell and just the one I needed at a bewildering period of my life. My generation may have never produced a triumphant musical statement during my coming of age, but maybe it didn’t need to. Cantrell returned amongst the wreckage of his career and built a masterpiece, a record that may only last as a mere footnote to his larger legacy, but still delivered the goods. Record sales be damned, this album is a gem that should be embraced by all that are willing to trod through the blackness and emerge intact on the other side.