When Alice in Chains all but imploded in the mid to late 90s, many wondered what would become of it's two most identifiable members: guitarist Jerry Cantrell and vocalist Layne Staley. Some wondered if Staley would be able to overcome his addictions and go solo, or possibly continue work on the Seattle supergroup sideproject Mad Season. Others wondered what Cantrell might have up his sleeve.
In 1999, Cantrell released his solo debut, titled Boggy Depot. The album got a decent reception at rock radio, which gave heavy airplay to the first single, Cut You In. Boggy Depot did ok saleswise, but nothing spectacular. I never actually really gave the album a chance, as I was never the biggest AIC fan. I just found them to be too depressing, too much of a mood killer.
Cantrell kind of disappeared after his tour in support of Depot, and he began writing what would become a 25 song double album. There was one problem: no record company wanted to touch it. After finally convincing Roadrunner to put it out as a single disc originally, the first version of Degradation Trip was released last spring.
Unfortunately, Layne Staley did not live to see his former bandmate's newest creation. Staley was found dead of a drug overdose last April, just before the album's release.
Finally, in November, Roadrunner released, per it's agreement with Cantrell, the original double album as Jerry intended it to be, with the original tracklisting and expanded liner notes on it's creation.
Degradation Trip Volumes 1 & 2 is a heavy and dark musical journey that seems to touch on just about every aspect Cantrell had previously covered on his other projects, but this time with much better focus, and simply, the best songs of his career.
First of all, the production values are top notch throughout both discs. The guitars sound crisper than on any Alice record, and the mixing is just about perfect for a rock disc(s).
Lyrically, Cantrell delves into the usual dark imagery that one associates with him. On Angel Eyes, probably the set's strongest track, he agonizes over a break up that seems to have taken place some time ago ("Angel eyes, four years and still I dream, agonize, such beauty not since seen").
He also proves he's not afraid to mix it up, incorporating the use of other rhythm instruments and acoustic guitars into more than a few of the songs, especially over the course of almost all of disc two.
I'm a big fan of what was the first single from the original one disc issue, Anger Rising, so much so that I think it may have been one of the better rock tracks released for radio consumption last year (which of course means rock radio ignored it after playing it for two weeks).
On other songs, like the extremely downtrodden S.O.S., Cantrell delves into what seem to be family issues ("I know you're my brother, but I don't even know ya") over some impressive guitar work by Cantrell.
The song after S.O.S., titled Give it a Name, is very bluesy in feel, and it contains one of my favorite lines on the entire record ("Slowly all the roles we act out become our identity, And in the end we are what we pretend to be").
Other highlights on this set include the pounding Owned and the anthemic Pro False Idol, a song that seems to be about the late Staley, which is not a compliment by any means. A lot of people had said their relationship had strained but this song really seems to be a telling tale of how much it had strained.
Speaking of Staley, the set closing 31/32 seems to have more than few references to what could be Staley. This is just an awe inspiring song that really shows how much depth Cantrell has musically, as it's really quite different from the rest of the material on this double record.
Unfortunately, I didn't give this disc a chance until this past January, otherwise it probably would have made my top 5 albums of 2002. It's an extremely strong disc creatively and it is certainly a refreshing treat in a world of Nickelbacks (who Cantrell unfortunately opened for last year), Linkin Parks and Disturbeds. If you've been missing the "rock" for the last couple of years, Degradation Trip: Volumes 1 and 2 should cure that.