Up until April 2002, hope sprang eternal for the Alice in Chains fan. The band, one of the finest to emerge from the early 1990s Seattle scene, had never officially called it quits even though circumstantial evidence left little possibility of a future. But when Layne Staley was found dead of a heroin overdose in his Seattle home last spring, any prospects for the continuation of AIC's legacy were put to rest along with the singer's tormented soul.
For a group whose recorded output was largely inconsistent, the enduring influence it has cast over contemporary metal and hard rock remains somewhat surprising. With the exception of 1992's Dirt -- a masterpiece that chronicled a dire descent into addiction and psychological hell with the band at the zenith of its musical and compositional power -- AIC's releases were predominantly spotty propositions that relied more on a few brilliant moments than any sort of continuity. Regardless, it's difficult to find a metal band (popular or otherwise) from the mid-90s on that doesn't owe a tremendous debt to the tuned-down guitar crunch and flatted-fifth vocal harmonies that Alice in Chains perfected in its brief existence.
Guitarist Jerry Cantrell was a major architect of that instantly recognizable and perpetually mimicked style, perhaps more so than Staley's tragic image allowed people to realize. As predominant songwriter and co-vocalist, Cantrell pulled a huge portion of AIC's weight while never demanding a share of the spotlight proportional to his input. And although he released Boggy Depot and toured to quiet acclaim in 1998 as the demise of Alice in Chains became progressively more inevitable, it's almost as if he couldn't escape the shadow of his friend and bandmate to make a serious go at a solo career.
However, Cantrell's latest solo outing Degradation Trip offers evidence to the contrary. Originally issued by Roadrunner as a single disc in June 2002, the project has resurfaced as an expanded, limited-edition two-disc package to fulfill the label's promise to eventually issue the work in unedited form. But for as bloated a project as two full discs might appear, the added material is remarkably light on filler -- Cantrell really did have two CDs worth of solid ideas, and it reflects favorably upon Roadrunner that they stayed true to their word by releasing the work as the artist intended it to be heard.
That's not to say that some of the pieces couldn't have used a little editorial input (a condition that clouded a great deal of Cantrell's unassisted AIC compositions as well) -- all the killer riffs and breathtaking dynamic shifts in the world can't hold up on their own when the transitional seams are a bit cumbersome -- but a majority of the songs rank with the best of Alice in Chains' catalog, regardless of whether or not they made the original single-disc cut. Throughout the set, Cantrell displays a knack for combining the dark energy of his former band with a slightly more radio-friendly edge -- songs like "Angel Eyes" and the country-flavored ballads that end each disc ("Gone", "31/32") could be sure-shot successes on just about any modern rock station. For the most part though, Cantrell plumbs the Sabbath-inspired chromaticism upon which his reputation is built with a consistent blend of dirges and straight-ahead rockers, aided in no small capacity by the stellar support of ex-Faith No More (and current Ozzy Osbourne) drummer Mike Bordin and Metallica's newest member, bassist Robert Trujillo (also a member of Ozzy's recent ensembles).
It's also worth noting that although Degradation Trip was composed and recorded long before Staley's death, his ghost still thoroughly haunts both discs of the exhaustive set. Over half of the songs are either open letters or thinly veiled pleas to characters that embody the late singer's troubled countenance, making for a listening experience that's nearly as harrowing as Staley's autobiographical Dirt diatribes. Cantrell has stated in numerous interviews that a great deal of exorcism was involved in the songwriting process for this record and, while he isn't able to capture the painful depths of addiction that Staley described so profoundly from his first-hand experience, the guitarist does pinpoint the interpersonal turmoil that results from those types of relationships with uncanny clarity.
So even if Cantrell might seem to be stubbornly clinging to a music that's only critically and commercially viable through a score of diluted carbon copies, he's so good at what he does that all else becomes irrelevant. Besides, considering the legions of imitators that have cluttered the landscape of pop culture for so many years now, the fact that the real thing still resonates with the utmost authenticity attests to Cantrell's wealth of talent and determination.