Album of the Week 52-2012: Jerry Cantrell – Degradation Trip Volumes 1 & 2

Jerry Cantrell is a genius. And ‘Degradation Trip’ is the best album ever recorded. During his tenure with the mighty Alice In Chains, he was already partially responsible for one of the best albums in Rock history – the bleak and gloomy masterpiece that is ‘Dirt’ – but never would his recipe of slow riffs, dual lead vocal harmonies and an incredibly dark atmosphere work as well as on this intense, pitch black work of art. This is basically the trademark Alice In Chains sound with all the elements that make that band so amazing turned up a bit.

What you hear on this record are the complete sessions of ‘Degradation Trip’. Cantrell funded the entire recording himself and even the only label that wanted to release the album (Roadrunner) didn’t dare to take the risk of releasing a double album and put out a single-disc edition – which Cantrell dubbed the “Reader’s Digest edtion” – half a year prior to this release. While that release was amazing in its own right, the only way to fully indulge the overwhelming atmosphere of Cantrell’s musings is through this double-disc set: there’s eleven additional songs, among which highlights as the Indian-tinged ‘Siddhartha’ (the natural successor to Alice In Chains’ disturbing classic ‘Frogs’), the psychedelic monster ‘Feel The Void’, the monstrous ‘Pig Charmer’ and the mind blowing guitar instrumental ‘Hurts Don’t It?’. Also, this is the original track sequencing as Cantrell intended it to be. Therefore, this version better represents his artistic vision.

Alice In Chains’ frontman Layne Staley was still alive during the recordings of ‘Degradation Trip’, but his drug-related struggles and upcoming death – he died two months prior to the release of the single-disc edition – seem to be a central theme on this album. Though Cantrell doesn’t name any names, it’s quite obvious that the recluse in ‘Bargain Basement Howard Hughes’ is either Staley or Cantrell himself writing this album. Cantrell’s lyrics are also harshly self-critical, condemning the Rockstar lifestyle, mourning the demise of Alice In Chains and questioning his own influence on the latter. Never do the lyrics veer into self-pity, however.

Part of this album’s brilliance lies within Cantrell’s perfect sense of dynamics. With the bulk of the material being gloomy and heavily depressive and the music being so absorbing, the risk of being dragged down into its atmosphere is quite large. Cantrell counters this every time when the atmosphere seems to get too depressive by interspersing somewhat lighter, uptempo Rockers like ‘Anger Rising’, ‘Mother’s Spinning In Her Grave (Glass Dick Jones)’ or ‘She Was My Girl’. Not that the vibe of those songs is anywhere near positive, but it provides a nice contrast with darker monsters as the epic ‘Spiderbite’, ‘Castaway’, ‘Chemical Tribe’ and opening track ‘Psychotic Break’. Closing ballads ‘Gone’ and ’31/32′ do a good job alleviating the sadness as well.

It’s almost unbelievable that most of this album was only recorded by three persons, with Cantrell only being backed by current Metallica bassist (and more importantly, former Suicidal Tendencies and Infectious Grooves bassist) Rob Trujillo and Faith No More’s Mike Bordin on drums. Two amazing musicians who were Ozzy Osbourne’s rhythm section at the time and have made themselves extremely servicable to this album’s music. Bordin’s drums also sound very warm and natural. The only additional backing is provided by former Queensrÿche guitarist Chris DeGarmo on ‘Anger Rising’ and some percussion by Walter Earl. That huge wall of guitars is Cantrell only!

Seriously, I could go on for hours about the genius of Jerry Cantrell and this album in particular, but the only way to fully experience the immense affection I feel for this album is to listen to it and be absorbed by its intense atmosphere. This isn’t the soundtrack to the beautiful first day of Spring or the music that is going to accompany you when you are set out to destroy everything, but then again: it’s so much better than that.

Recommended tracks: ‘Siddhartha’, ‘Spiderbite’, ‘Psychotic Break’, ‘Anger Rising’, ‘Angel Eyes’

  1. I met Jerry shortly after the release of the single disc edition back in the day. He seemed obviously troubled, but was still very polite. I’ve been a die-hard AIC fan since the beginning, so meeting him was a humbling experience. Thanks for the review & for pointing out such a talented artist.

    • Hey Stacy,
      Thanks for your comment and sharing your story. Figuring the recent events, I can understandwhy he was troubled at the time. I’m glad he had the talent to transfer that energy into such a great album. I have yet to meet him, but I would be looking forward to it.

      Also, thanks for taking the time to read the review! It is well appreciated!

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