Stereo Review
March 1996

Columbia 67248 (65 min).
Performance: Tedious
Recording: Thick

What's with this trend of popular bands apologizing in song for their very existence? Nirvana started it by framing In Utero with the self-lacerating Serve the Servants and All Apologies. Then Soul Asylum followed suit with a hit song (Misery) admitting they'd sold out big time. Mpw along comes Alice in Chains with a song that's equally unkind to girlfriends, record label, and themselves, and whose title reads like a critical assessment of the band: Sludge Factory.

Unfortunately, that title is right on the money, since in purely musical terms Alice in Chains represents the rebirth of Quaalude rock. We're talking bluster, we're talking abour lack of dynamics and swing, we're talking about the sound of Seventies dinosaurs hulking in the distance (it's telling that Ken Hensley, once the leader of hte proto-Spinal Tap band Uriah Heep, is listed here under Special Thanks). There's nothing in itself wrong with all that: Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana have all borrowed heavily from arena rock to creative effect. But if Nirvana was the Led Zeppelin of alternative rock, them Alice in Chains is its Grand Funk Railroad.

This new effort is clearly meant to be a cathartic, "returning from the heroin depths" kind of album, except it's ahrd to feel any resonance when Layne Staley sings in a relentless monotone (since it's usually double-tracked, make that two monotones) and when his lyrics make you yearn for the subtlety of, say, Rush. And Alice is unique among alternative bands in that it plays sludge metal without subversion or irony: The guys just serve the damn stuff straight-up (and they need a more interesting guitarist than Jerry Cantrell to carry it off). They do, however, package their CD in a luminous green box, learning a lesson from Pink Floyd's "Pulse": If you can't make your album sound good, at least make it glow in the dark.

-Brett Milano