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Friday, December 18, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Alice In Chains Unbound

Alice in Chains' new "Dirt" album got off to a flying start in October, when it landed on the No. 6 spot in Billboard its first week out. That's the highest first-week showing ever by a Seattle band.

"Dirt" didn't maintain those lofty heights for long but it has hovered in the Top 20 ever since, making the band the latest triumph of Seattle rock, in league with Nirvana and Pearl Jam. The strength of the disc, along with the faithful audience the band has built here since the late 1980s, resulted in a fast sellout of its show tomorrow night at the Arena. A second show was added for Sunday, and it too has sold out.

Both shows also include two other Northwest bands, Ellensburg's melodic grungers Screaming Trees and Seattle's hard-rocking Gruntruck.

In addition to reaping sales, "Dirt" also stirred controversy, because of its unflinching look at drug addiction. A five-song cycle on the album follows the downward spiral of heroin use, from initial euphoria to the inevitable crash. The songs grew out of the real-life experience of lead singer Layne Staley, who has been very public about his battle with the drug.

It's not so much the subject matter of Alice in Chains' material that makes the band so compelling, but rather the way the message is delivered. Drama and power mark the songs on "Dirt" - not the kind of manufactured bombast you hear from so many metal bands, but the kind of pent-up, frustrated energy that springs from real

emotion.

The band crafts its songs for maximum impact. There's nothing extraneous, nothing forced. "Them Bones," the current video on MTV, is so short and to-the-point, and has such a blunted conclusion (it just stops), that it stands out among the many overproduced, regulation-length clips that surround it.

The song is a vision of death, a bad dream come true. Staley perfectly captures the horrific imagery with a growling vocal that grates even while it draws you in.

The lyric was written by guitarist Jerry Cantrell, who composes all the band's songs, sometimes in collaboration with Staley. The lyrics often are abstract, with germs of ideas you can fill out with your own imagination. The language is blunt and full of unpleasant imagery, and is always driven home by the raw energy of the music.

"Dirt" got a jump start when one its songs was included on the "Singles" movie soundtrack, which was a big hit this summer. "Would?" became the first single from the soundtrack and enjoyed widespread radio airplay. The video was shown on MTV and the band was featured in the movie performing the song in a nightclub scene.

Alice in Chains was formed in south Seattle in late 1987 with the same lineup as now - Staley, Cantrell, bassist Mike Starr and drummer Sean Kinney. Originally called Diamond Lie, it covered songs like David Bowie's "Suffragette City" and Hanoi Rocks' "Taxi Driver" and did blistering originals, which even then dwelt on dark subjects. Some of its earliest tunes included "Chemical Addiction," "Killing Yourself" and "Sea of Sorrow."

After joining Silver-Curtis Management, which also handles Soundgarden and Screaming Trees, the band signed with Columbia and issued an EP, "We Die Young," in June 1990. Its debut album, "Facelift," came out two months later.

In early 1991 its "Man in the Box" became the first Seattle grunge song to gain national attention. That led to a European tour with Megadeth, a slot on the "Clash of the Titans" American tour that summer, followed by a tour with Van Halen. A second EP, "SAP," was released in late 1991, followed this year by the "Singles" soundtrack and "Dirt."

Screaming Trees also got its big break when its "Nearly Lost You" was also included on the "Singles" soundtrack. The grungy but melodic tune was released as a single, which got airplay on college radio, and the video was played on MTV.

The song was also included on the band's "Sweet Oblivion" album for Epic, released in September. The band's strongest effort yet, it's marked by a variety of well-written songs, stellar production (the album was recorded in New York by former Dinosaur Jr. member Don Fleming) and tight musicianship.

The Trees' greatest strength is lead singer Mark Lanegan, who manages to bring pop-vocal sensibilities to the intense tunes. His work is probably the main reason the band was picked up in 1988 by leading indie label SST. The group released four albums for SST before joining Epic in 1990. "Sweet Oblivion" is its third Epic release.

Gruntruck is a hard-driving, ambitious foursome formed by former members of the local splatter-rock band the Accused and the grungy Skin Yard, noted producer Jack Endino's band. Gruntruck's latest release is "Push," a grunge-meets-psychedelia album on Roadrunner Records.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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