Degradation Trip is the second and to date, final solo album by Alice in Chains guitarist and vocalist Jerry Cantrell, released on June 18, 2002. It marks his difficult transition from Columbia Records to Roadrunner and was dedicated to Alice in Chains lead singer Layne Staley, who died two months before the album's release. Degradation Trip featured two singles and was well received by critics, faring better than Cantrell's solo debut and bearing stronger resemblance to his work in Alice in Chains.
The album was the result of an intense writing process that resulted in 25 songs. Cantrell enlisted new band mates to officially dissociate himself from the incapacitated Alice in Chains and, after being dropped from Columbia, faced a turbulent recording process funded entirely by himself. After a lack of label interest, Cantrell eventually acquired a deal with Roadrunner who requested that he condense the material to 14 tracks. On November 26, 2002, the full Degradation Trip sessions' songs were released in their entirety as Degradation Trip Volumes 1 & 2.
Not long after the April 1998 release of Cantrell's solo debut, Boggy Depot, he began work on a sophomore record which he confidently projected for a mid-'99 release. The majority of this follow-up, later entitled Degradation Trip, was written in the seclusion of a house in the Cascade Mountains. In a state of self-imposed isolation Cantrell recorded the demos using a four-track recorder and a battered Gibson Les Paul. In 2002, he detailed the experience of writing the album and its outcome:
Amidst writing a surplus of material between fall 1998 and spring '99, Cantrell showed two of his new songs to Alice in Chains' lead singer Layne Staley, who had been living in seclusion for some time prior and had not worked with Cantrell in some time. Staley contributed to the songs which would become "Get Born Again," a single from Nothing Safe: Best of the Box, and the song "Died". Thus, rather than becoming Cantrell's solo work, this led to their recording by Alice in Chains in 1998, release the following year, and the esteem of being what would years later be recognized as the final material written by the band with Staley.
To continue developing his second solo album, Cantrell enlisted drummer Mike Bordin and bassist Robert Trujillo of Ozzy Osbourne. The choice would deliberately refrain Cantrell from his Alice in Chains band mates and therefore distinguish his solo career from his past. He originally booked studio time with Dave Jerden, who produced Alice in Chains' first two albums; however, Cantrell fired him after two days, claiming "It was just not working out personally. . . Mike and Robert had hooked up with me and we had been through rehearsals, and we got into the studio with Dave and it all blew up on us on the second day. It took us months to get regrouped again. . . He's a great guy and we did some great music together, but sometimes I guess you just can't go home."
Cantrell was unable to find a replacement for Jerden and decided to self-produce Degradation Trip with his friend Jeff Tomei. They waited another three months for Bordin and Trujillo to become available again, but Cantrell found himself losing Columbia Records' approval of the project. As soon as recording began, his contract with Sony, parent to Columbia, had ended, leaving him with staggering studio bills. He continued financing it on his own, even mortgaging his house to do so, and developed the album to its completion without label interference. Cantrell reflected in early 2002 on his time making a record without a label:
Trujillo noted the difficulty in re-recording Cantrell's "little hoodrat demos." He was asked to replicate the demo arrangements which were on cassette and, according to Trujillo, had nearly indistinguishable bass. It resulted that Trujillo, inspired by Pino Palladino, developed his own code for writing down bass compositions which he would continue using in the future. However, he remarked positively on his recording experience with Cantrell: "I was primarily just there to enhance the bass, but he taught me a lot about simplicity and using space and notes that really mean something to a song."
Finally, he was picked up by Roadrunner who insisted Cantrell narrow his solo work to 14 songs. He was told, however, that the remaining tracks would later be released in some form. Indeed, on November 26, 2002, a second version of the album – considered to be the "definitive" and originally intended version – was released. This limited edition double album includes 11 additional recordings that Roadrunner forced Cantrell to cut, in fear that a double album would have low commercial viability. As such, Cantrell has called the single-disc release the "Reader's Digest version" of Degradation Trip.
With its aggressive, metallic approach and dark tones, Degradation Trip more easily compares to Cantrell's previous work in Alice in Chains than that of his more experimental solo debut. A hallmark of Cantrell's style, many unorthodox rhythms and time signatures are exhibited throughout the album as well as heavy use of wah-wah guitar effect and choir-like vocal harmonies.
The album's grungy heaviness is balanced, however, by moody acoustic ballads such as the somber "Angel Eyes." Serene, twangy guitar riffs featured in the likes of "Gone" allude more to Cantrell's Southern roots.
Its lyrics, often haunting and confessional, range from cynical sarcasm to explicitly morbid portrayals. Cantrell vents on the demise of his band and other personal issues with depictions of drug abuse, troubled relationships, and the rocky, hedonistic lifestyle of a musician. The album's title refers to Cantrell's self-imposed isolation and appears in "Solitude," a brooding acoustic track. The lyrical impact of songs such as "Psychotic Break," which also describes Cantrell's seclusion and reflects on deceased friends and family, was only prophetically magnified upon the sudden death of Layne Staley in April 2002.
Two singles were released off the album, "Anger Rising" and "Angel Eyes." The former debuted in April 2002 and had a music video which gained the album substantial coverage on MTV2. The acoustic ballad "Angel Eyes" surfaced on radio in September. MTV2 also aired short segments of a primitively animated Cantrell discussing various aspects of his music and personal life. Prior to the release of Degradation Trip, "She Was My Girl" appeared on the soundtrack, Music from and Inspired by Spider-Man.
With his album still being shopped around to labels, Jerry Cantrell began a national club tour with a show in his new hometown, San Francisco, California, in January 2001. Supported by Comes With the Fall and Swarm, he recruited M.I.R.V. guitarist Brian Kehoe to join himself, Bordin, and Trujillo on stage. The three bands performed together from March 13 to April 5. Comes With the Fall, a young band that Cantrell admired dearly, would continue touring with him into the following year and even participate during his sets, which included both solo work and Alice in Chains songs.
Cantrell, who recently signed with Roadrunner, performed at the 16th annual South by Southwest music conference in March 2002. In support of his new album, Cantrell embarked on a two-month North American solo tour beginning April 20. Despite the death of Layne Staley during this time, Cantrell opted not to cancel any shows, stating, "The shows I played between the time I got the word about Layne and Layne's funeral were very important to me in terms of being able to continue on. It's one of those things where if you take a break and allow things to settle in, it might be harder to get up again." William DuVall of Comes With the Fall (future Alice in Chains vocalist), who performed Staley's vocals during concerts, elaborated on this emotional period:
That summer, Cantrell toured with Nickelback, whom he had befriended at a Roadrunner Records Christmas party, and played in select cities with Creed. However, Bordin and Trujillo were occupied recording Ozzy Osbourne's latest album, forcing Comes With the Fall to both perform as Cantrell's band and open for him in October. The solo musician found himself ironically opening for bands that his previous elder group, Alice in Chains, had undeniably influenced. Regarding the tours, Cantrell expressed enthusiasm toward Nickelback, a Canadian band with high admiration for Cantrell. During some shows, Cantrell also joined Nickelback to play the Alice in Chains song "It Ain't Like That" together, as documented on Nickelback's Live at Home DVD. However, Cantrell also noted his annoyance toward Creed's indifference and lack of friendliness while touring with them.
Cantrell also took part in the Canada's Edgefest. One particularly heated show forced Cantrell to swap places with Sevendust who were having trouble crossing into Canada, and postponed their slot. The sudden inconvenience led to technical problems with Cantrell's set and a rift between the two parties; his guitar shorted out early on, and he later tripped on a microphone cord before angrily ending his set early. Cantrell then gave the crowd a disparaging remark about the upcoming Sevendust. Lajon Witherspoon, frontman of Sevendust, then spoke out during their set: "When Jerry Cantrell says fuck Sevendust, I say fuck you, Jerry Cantrell. I hope you heard me, Jerry Cantrell." However, Sevendust's spokesman soon after claimed that the two parties had apologized over the misunderstanding and that Cantrell was largely just upset over the technical difficulties. Further details revealed that Sevendust's bus broke down on their way to Ontario and that they waited two hours for officers to clear them to cross the border.
After opening for Nickelback and Creed, Cantrell began a headlining tour on October 9. This included Comes With the Fall, Mad at Gravity and Udora as openers. After an October 23 show in Portland, Oregon, Cantrell passed out from extreme exhaustion and dehydration. This caused the cancellation of two shows in Seattle, Washington and Colorado Springs, Colorado. He continued touring on October 27.
Degradation Trip received overwhelmingly positive reviews from various media and stronger enthusiasm than Cantrell's solo debut. Many critics noted that the album holds many similarities to the Alice in Chains sound while also featuring new elements. Its bleak lyrical themes also gained much attention, particularly due to the recent death of Layne Staley.
Months prior to the album's release, Jon Wienhorn of MTV declared it "Cantrell's best and most personal outing since Alice in Chains' last stand, and in many ways the disc takes over where that band left off." Allmusic's Stephen Thomas Erlewine claimed that "serious listeners and longtime fans will [...] appreciate the album as Cantrell's best record since Dirt" and regarded Cantrell as being "on top of [his] game". Sandy Masuo of Rolling Stone considered it less adventurous than Boggy Depot but noted, "There's no happy ending when all is said and done, but it's a more poetic trip than most angst merchants offer these days, and for that reason alone it's a journey worth taking." Blender's J.D. Considine similarly praised Cantrell's lyrics: "For all the overdubbed vocals and layered guitars, it’s the writing, not the arranging, that carries this album. Cantrell creates songs, not just riffs, and Degradation Trip is packed with memorable melodies and strikingly vivid lyrics."
All tracks written by Jerry Cantrell.
|2.||"Bargain Basement Howard Hughes"||5:38|
|6.||"Mother's Spinning in Her Grave (Glass Dick Jones)"||3:53|
|8.||"Give It a Name"||4:01|
|10.||"She Was My Girl"||3:59|
Album – Billboard (North America)
|2002||Billboard Top 200||33|
Singles – Billboard (North America)
|2002||"Anger Rising"||Mainstream Rock Tracks||10|
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