Fans of Alice in Chains came to realize this year that with the death of Layne Staley, there would be no reunion in the future. So with that legacy casting a shadow Jerry Cantrell, Staley’s bandmate and songwriting partner, finally released his anticipated second solo album. While Staley was the voice of AIC and its frontman, fans won’t soon forget that Cantrell was the heart of the music itself. His harmony vocals and guitar rifts defined Alice in Chains’ sound, and this effort goes to show that although Staley will be missed, rock music hasn’t died just yet.
I hate to compare this album to his former band, as that really isn’t fair. There really is no substitute for AIC, and Cantrell isn’t trying to duplicate his success. Rather, he’s a hard-working gifted songwriter/musician and this effort should be judged solely on its own. I can honestly say that although it is impossible to listen to this album without comparing it to the old band, it stands out on its own as a very good record.
Cantrell’s first solo work, Boggy Depot, had its ups and downs. It was a good listen, but other than a few songs (such as “My Song”), it wasn’t particularly inspiring. With Degradation Trip, Cantrell realizes his potential. Now he’s a legitimate solo artist, not a member of a successful band branching out to do his own thing. He signed up with Roadrunner records, borrowed Mike Bordin (drums) and Robert Trujilo (bass) from Ozzy Osbourne’s lineup, and is here to make a statement all his own.
The album starts out with “Psychotic Break”, which is aptly named. It carries a pulse, droning along as it teases the listener, promising to break out into something much bigger. As the album progresses, this does happen. “Bargain Basement Howard Hughes” is evidence of this, and then we’re really in for a stretch of listening pleasure as Cantrell moves into “Anger Rising”, and the best song on the CD, “Angel Eyes”. These songs could both be hits with the right marketing, so we’ll see what happens. “Angel Eyes”, in fact, should be placed in the top ten songs that Cantrell has ever penned, putting it right up there with “Rooster”, “Would?”, “Got Me Wrong”, “Heaven Beside You”, “Killer is Me”, and “No Excuses”. Yes, those are some of the best songs that Alice In Chains put out over the years, but that’s how good this tune is. You just have to hear it.
Cantrell slows things down a little with “Solitutude”, but loses nothing. At this pace, you can see that he’s a songwriter first, and that music is truly his passion. Again, hating to compare it to AIC, but I have to look back on the Jar of Flies album when I listen to this one. Like his old band, Cantrell pens a relaxing melody just as well as a hard rock jamming tune.
Other highlights on this album include “She Was My Girl,” another song that can’t be overlooked with its catchy pace, and could be another hit. Not only that, good luck getting it out of your head once you’ve given it a good listen. Check out “Hellbound,” and “Spiderbite,” where Cantrell shows he’s got the heavy thing down pat too. Here’s where you’ll recognize Ozzy’s boys just itching to break loose. Cantrell never drops the leash completely, however. He keeps us held tightly to what he’s trying to do here. And that’s just fine, as this isn’t Ozzy, but rather a blend of musicianship, blues, rock and roll, and grunge. The taste of metal mixed in doesn’t overpower or take away from this formula. “Mother’s Spinning in Her Grave” has a beat underlying it that will make you tap the steering wheel as you drive. “Give it a Name” is another catchy one, reminding me more of a good Pearl Jam tune than anything else. If you can imagine Pearl Jam with AIC-like harmony vocals.
“Castaway” isn’t one to be overlooked, either. Nor is “Chemical Tribe,” another heavy one that almost, but never quite, lets loose. This one will make you think too, as he tackles the concept of drugs taking over our generation. Perhaps that was written with Layne Staley, who the album is dedicated to, in mind. “Locked On” is poignant: “locked on, what’s the deal? faded rock star, pushing needle…you don’t know, well that’s alright. You do your thing, I’ll do mine”…..
The album finishes off with “Gone”, again bringing Staley to mind. This is the album’s slowest song, and brings us all down from the “Trip” we’ve been riding since “Psychotic Break”. This is one of those songs that just mellows out the listener, if it doesn’t make ‘em think outright. And one will need several minutes after it is over before putting on some other music. That would just spoil the mood.
Degradation Trip is one of those albums that sounds good the first time thru, but gets even better with each playing. Yes, it will remind you at times of Alice in Chains; there’s simply no avoiding that. But if you can take a few moments to toss out comparisons to his old band, Cantrell will entertain you completely on his own. And this isn’t a bad thing. This album is one of the best releases that this reviewer has heard in years. That’s with the rise of such bands as Staind, Creed, Godsmack, and Nickelback, and isn’t to put any of those down. This album is simply that good.
A final thought, from “Locked On”:
“Every song I wrote meant what I said at the time
Yeah I spent some time looking death right in the eye
Every song I wrote I captured a fragment of time
Dying a little makes you appreciate life”