Seattle sound, not scene

November 20, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music CriticBY ROCKY SCHENCK

Alice in Chains is a Seattle band in every sense of the term.

With their long hair, lax expressions and loose, well-worn clothes, these four have the look down cold. They also have the sound, a tunefully intense mixture of grunge guitar, slo-mo riffing, soaring vocals and sledgehammer drums.

Most importantly, Alice in Chains also has the Seattle attitude. So even though the band has been complimentarily compared to fellow Northwest rockers as Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, and despite the fact that its new album, "Dirt," has been a fixture on the Top 20 since its release, no one in the group seems to put much stock in the "Seattle Sound" mystique.

"The band's from Seattle," says guitarist Jerry Cantrell over the phone, not even bothering to add the "So what?" From where he sits (which, at the moment, is a hotel room in St. Petersburg, Fla.) questions about the mystical, musical qualities of Seattle seem pretty silly. Because the scene didn't make the bands -- the bands made the scene.

"There are a lot of things contributing to the success of the scene, but the reason that [Seattle bands] are a success is because they're writing great music," he says. "And that's it, period. Anything that comes after that -- the media blitz or saying being from Seattle is helping this or that -- becomes extraneous after a while. The reason it became famous in the first place is because they were great bands individually.

"It's like beating a dead horse," he adds. "It's a famous thing now, and it's kind of a drag to deal with it sometimes. Everybody wants to know why. And the reason is the music. That's the one and only."

It helps, of course, that bands in Seattle are much less concerned with seeming hip than rock and rollers elsewhere. In Los Angeles, for instance, "everybody's really concerned with keeping up with the Joneses," says Cantrell. "The bands from Seattle, ourselves included, [couldn't care less] about that kind of stuff. It's more important to just write music that means something to you, or music that you have fun with."

Maybe that's how the Alices have managed to capture all the power of heavy metal without succumbing to all the obvious cliches. "We definitely have that metal-type thing," agrees Cantrell. "I like heavy, aggressive music, and we all pretty much do. But we're also really into melody.

"That's the beauty of the thing. The way we write is, somebody will bring in a basic idea for the tune, and after that it gets changed around as we all work together. It's not a real conscious effort, like, 'Hey, I need a 32nd note here' or that type of thing. It's natural. Somebody'll just throw something in, and it's like, 'Yeah, that's it.' We just all feed off each other."

Perhaps that's why the music seems so cathartic. Despite a tendency toward minor-key melodies and dirge-like riffs that had Rolling Stone describing Alice's sound as "the dark, brooding side of the Seattle scene," the songs on "Dirt" never come across as downbeat or depressing.

"It's release," he says of the music's emotional impact. "But some people get a little confused by it."

That's especially true when it comes to the drug songs. "Dirt" is full of songs like "God Smack" ("God's name is smack for some" goes one line) and "Junkhead." Given the fact that several members of the band have had problems with chemical dependency. it would be enormously easy for listeners to take lyrics like "What's my drug of choice?/ Well, what have you got?" as confessional songwriting.

Cantrell doesn't deny the band's problems, but neither does he want to celebrate them. "That's not something to be proud about, man," he says. "It's really not."

Still, he has enough faith in the group's fans to believe they won't get the wrong idea. "The majority of the people who have bought the Alice music really, I think, understand what it's all about," he says. "It's not literal, this-is-what-happened stuff, but there are definitely experiences involved. We use a lot of symbolism, and use characters to explain situations that we've seen, or felt, or observed from afar.

"I mean, that's the whole thing with what we do musically," he adds. "Our music is a way to express things that we wouldn't talk about -- things that are that heavy and that dark. These are feelings that everybody experiences. That's why people relate to it."

Alice in Chains

When: Sunday at 8 p.m.

Where: Ritchie Coliseum, University of Maryland College Park.

Tickets: Sold out.

Call: (202) 393-0930 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets.

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