Alice in Chains
Alice in Chains

Alice in Chains' new, eponymous album would make a perfect soundtrack to one of Hieronymous Bosch's paintings of hell--it's a claustrophobic, harrowing piece of work that is conversely beautiful and uplifting in the most unexpected of moments.

Like its predecessor LP, Dirt, and the intervening EP Jar of Flies, Alice in Chains is dominated by themes of addiction and betrayal. But what was raw and open in Dirthas now healed and scarred over. And, like scar tissue, the results--while ugly tolook at (or, in this case, listen to)--are stronger than the flesh that originally bore the wound.

This is not an album for hard-rock dilettantes, nor is it intended for the weak at heart. Alice in Chains fully expects you to wear a cup.

The album opens with the typically uncompromising "Grind," a denunciation of the naysayers who so often have falsely predicted the band's collapse. When lead vocalist Layne Staley growls, "You'd be well-advised/Not to plan my funeral beforethe body dies," you get the feeling there's someone he wouldn't mind putting in that grave. Jerry Cantrell's guitar work isappropriately menacing, and choked withthe kind of delay effects that, on headphones, make the inside of your head seem a huge and scary place to be. But then, as if to showcase the album's primal strength, "Grind" breaks into a soaring chorus that justifies the threat and bombast that precede it. The song ends on a down note, however, as if to map the direction the album will take from there: We're going down, baby, all the way down.

Considering the band members' well-publicized bouts with heroin addiction, the vote for most gut-wrenching moment on Alice in Chains goes to "Sludge Factory." The song chugs along with the unrelenting intensity of a nightmare, taking in both the inescapable allure of the needle and the damage it does. When Staley moans, "Your weapon is guilt," the listener wonders who the singer is addressing: society, or the addict himself?

"Sludge Factory" is backed by the beautiful, acoustic "Heaven Beside You," a number that wouldn't have been out of place onJar of Flies or, with a little cleaning up, asa Crosby, Stills and Nash encore. Again, the subject is addiction, but the view this time is from a completely different angle. Been there, done that, Alice seems to say, and there's no sympathy for you here. Heroin is coming back in a big way--but Alice in Chains seems out to dispel the airof nihilistic romanticism surrounding the drug.

Alice in Chains isn't all spoons and candles, though. After all, you need a little light to know what darkness is. Musically, the album is peppered with flashes of wit and smiley-faced brilliance. The breakdown backbeat at the end of the aforementioned "Sludge Factory," for instance, is properly hallucinatory. And check out the supersarcastic "oo-oo/yeah" call and response on "Again." Another delightful wisp of fluff is "The Nothing Song," a quick surge of power riffs over a chorus about writer's block: "Thenothing song sticks to your mouth/Like peanut butter on the brain."

Alice in Chains closes with "Over Now," a stunner of a song that sums up the themes of the recording as effectively as "Grind" introduces them. The song's guitar line is strongly reminiscent of David Gilmour's better moments on The Wall, and Staley assures us that "we pay our debts sometime." Alice in Chains went deep into the spiritual red during the heroin daze of recent years, but, judging by the depth and delivery of this album, all debts have been paid in full.--Jon Kinzler

Pizzicato Five
The Sound of Music by Pizzicato Five

Some look into the face of American popular culture and see the dark abyss of lowest-common-denominator commercialism. The Tokyo cyberpop duo Pizzicato Five, however, peers stateside and sees a sparkling disco ball of possibilities. P5 is the ultimate in fabulousness and prefabrication; its music one grand wink that tickles us silly, like a soundtrack to Lifestyles of the Hip and Groovy. The group is hair hoppers, lounge lizards, club kids and space cadets rolled into one exquisite package, on sale everywhere and all night long.

Like last year's American debut, Made in USA, The Sound of Music highlights songs taken from the group's Japanese discography (more than two dozen titles, starting with 1985's Audrey Hepburn Complex). Again, the ever-changing group--masterminded by Warhol wanna-be Yasuharu Konishi and fronted by Twiggy disciple Maki Nomiya--has borrowed, sampled and stolen its way through an irresistible mlange of Esquivel's bossa nova cocktail swing ("Rock and Roll"); Bacharach's jazz pop ("Fortune Cookie"); chewy, psychedelic bubblegum ("Strawberry Sleighride"); cartoonish, Jackson 5 Motown ("Happy Sad"); and Dee-Lite schoolhouse music ("The Night Is Still Young").

While Maki sings in a mix of Japanese andEnglish, the only language that really makes sense in P5's The Sound of Music isthe expressive "ti-ti-tika-ti" that occasionally bursts forth like giggles. Of course, it'sacode only the beautiful people understand.--Roni Sarig


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