15 Years Ago: Jerry Cantrell Tries to Leave Alice in Chains Behind on ‘Degradation Trip’
To say Jerry Cantrell emerged from the ‘90s unscathed would be a misstatement of epic proportions. Alice in Chains had fallen apart in depressing fashion, victims of various substance abusing within its ranks. The guitarist's first solo album, 1998’s Boggy Depot, was received well-enough, but not so much that Sony Records would keep him on its roster. Without a label or a band, he locked himself away for a spell, writing music in complete isolation, resulting in Degradation Trip, which saw its initially truncated release on June 18, 2002.
“Alice was pretty much done, and it [was] either do nothing or do something, and I’ve always been somebody that steps up to challenges and tries something different in life,” Cantrell told PopMatters. “Now with my second record, going back is an impossibility. That’s really not what I would’ve chosen, but that’s the way it happened so, here I am.”
Before moving forward though, he did attempt to keep the AIC flame alive. Cantrell brought some of the songs to Layne Staley, and two of them, “Get Born Again” and “Died,” ended up on the band’s career-spanning 1999 boxed set, Music Bank.
“Both of those songs were actually songs I had planned for this record," Cantrell said. “I was heading in the direction of making another record and the guys liked those tunes and we ended up with the music and Layne started writing some lyrics.”
It’s no surprise then that Degradation Trip sounded a lot like a lost Alice in Chains’ record, despite Cantrell consciously trying to distance himself from those comparisons. Rather than having AIC bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney play on it, like they did for Boggy Depot, he instead enlisted future Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo and Mike Bordin of Faith No More to fill those respective roles. Yet there was no denying the similarities to his past, both sonically and thematically.
Cantrell double-tracks his voice for the most part, coming close to replicating Alice in Chains' signature dual lead vocals. The sludgy depths of tracks like “Bargain Basement Howard Hughes,” “Castaway” and lead single “Anger Rising” could easily have been the next logical progression of Cantrell’s previous outfit. That said, it is a step forward, one which represents him not trying to simply rely on the past but develop as a fully-fledged solo artist.
“Angel Eyes,” another single, is almost poppy -- albeit with a hefty tint of bleakness -- while “Solitude” is one of the darker compositions from Cantrell, featuring the lines, “When hurting yourself feels right / And there's nothing familiar in sight / Take the time to pull the weeds choking flowers in your life.” as the chorus. It’s pretty clear that many of the lyrics throughout Degradation Trip are pointedly toward Staley, and not in a malevolent manner, but rather observational and born out of frustration.
Compounding the poignancy would be the death of the singer just two months before Cantrell’s album was released, closing the chapter to any shred of hope Alice in Chains would return with its classic lineup intact. That seemed to pave the way even more so for a Cantrell solo career, but even the official start of it wouldn’t be without a major speed bump. Roadrunner Records picked up the album, but not without a major caveat; originally planned as a double-LP, the label took a wait-and-see attitude and made Cantrell cut it down to just a single disc.
The record did well enough to warrant an eventual release that November as Degradation Trip Volumes 1 & 2, partially buoyed by such high-profile opening slots for Creed and Nickelback. True to Cantrell’s original vision, the reconfigured version was just as solid, if not more so, than its abridged counterpart.
It would’ve been interesting to see where Cantrell’s solo endeavors led him, but in place of that, he slowly began the resurrection of Alice in Chains in 2005, at first with a succession of guest vocalists before committing solely to William DuVall of hard rock trio Comes with the Fall and delivering the Black Gives Way to Blue LP in 2009.
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