After nearly a year on hiatus, Alice in Chains released their self-titled LP in the fall of 1995. Coming off a length of time that saw the band deal with a cancelled tour, side projects, and a lead singer struggling with heroin addiction, the recordings here symbolize a band that wasn't quite holding itself together. Much like the three-legged dog in the album's cover art, the music here feels at times like there is something missing. In all the time I've had to listen to this album over the years, I've never really been able to appreciate it outside of a few moments here and there.
To start, the album's overall production is much more... sludgy then on previous works. The album sounds like it was recorded in somebody's garage, lacking the scope of sound present on Dirt, or even Facelift. While the more intimate recording gives it a certain quality that I'm sure the band was eager to experiment with, I have never felt like it had an edge over the metallic quality of their earlier work. With the band's trademark vocal harmonies, it sounds like the band went the route of layering Layne Staley's own voice over himself, as opposed to having Staley and Jerry Cantrell's distinct voices compliment each other; the result is a kind of acidic drone in some of the vocal lines that, once again, don't do much for me. Case in point, the verses in "Again" and "Brush Away"; both songs seem to remove Cantrell from the equation. Again, it's probably part of the aesthetic the band was going for here, but it's not winning any accolades from me.
That's not to say the album is all bad, and I certainly don't mean to come down on it as hard as it seems I am. The blending of acoustic and electric elements on some of the songs is a welcome step for the band; "Heaven Beside You" and "Over Now" are two of the more memorable tracks. The former devolves into a discordant grind in the second half of the song that provides an effective shift in tone, while "Over Now" is an excellent closer to entire album. Both songs recall the stellar "Brother" and "Got Me Wrong" from Sap, which is a plus.
The album is not afraid to get heavy in some parts; things get particularly crushing during the aptly-named "Sludge Factory". Again, the vocals here don't quite do it for me 100% of the time, but they are unsettling and provide a great dressing for the fuzzy distortion of Cantrell's riffs. But, what can I say about the last three minutes of the seven(!!!)-minute song that amounts to nothing but guitar-dickery and Staley repeating the word "guilt" over and over? Puzzling. "Frogs" is another song in a similar vein as "Sludge Factory", with a pained and mournful chorus; "Why's it have to be this way?" Staley asks, to a desolate soundscape that offers little answers. It suffers the same problems as "Sludge Factory" though, in that it just crawls along for far too long, like algae growing along the surface of a pond.
The rest of the album is an amalgamation of the band's works up to that point, with songs like "Grind" and "Again" providing the mid-tempo chug that wouldn't be out of place on Dirt, and the aforementioned acoustic-laden tracks naturally evolve from Sap and Jar of Flies. But for all of its value as a culmination of what came before, I don't feel like AiC quite found their footing here. Perhaps it's reflective of the time during which it was written, but Alice in Chains ultimately comes off as sounding like a band struggling to come to terms with the very real personal issues plaguing its members, and I can respect the fact that others may find something to appreciate there. It would have been interesting to see where things went after this in regards to new material, but as history has shown it was not meant to be (not with Staley at the helm, at least); this proved to be the last new studio material from the band for fourteen years.
This is not an album I find myself revisiting very often, and in doing so for this review, it becomes apparent why.
Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10] (Hey, I know I made the same mistakes)