UNCHAINED MELODIES With a new record, Jerry Cantrell rises from the ashes of Alice in Chains

Sunday, June 16th 2002, 1:80AM

The wheels of rock stardom turn quickly and cruelly.

Ask Jerry Cantrell.

The sound he spearheaded for his late band Alice in Chains a grinding, sorrowful collection of compressed minor chords thrives all over rock radio. There's hardly a guitar band on the air from Creed and Nickelback to Staind that doesn't owe half its sonic palette to Alice's '90s music. But while those bands sell in the multimillions, Cantrell had trouble finding a label to release his latest solo album, "Degradation Trip." He couldn't convince Alice's longtime label, Columbia, to approve his creative choices. In fact, it cut off his funding while the album was being recorded and Cantrell mortgaged his house to keep it going. After a protracted time, his album wound up on the metal-oriented Roadrunner Records, which releases it Tuesday.

"It seems that people want to hear that [Alice] sound, but not from the real thing," Cantrell admits, before quickly adding, "that may be too high and mighty a statement. Times change and you have to adapt."

Cantrell has had tougher realities than career setbacks to deal with over the last decade. Though Alice in Chains emerged as the most consistent seller of the whole Seattle-based grunge movement, its lead singer, Layne Staley, was plagued by drug addiction. By the mid-'90s, his problems were keeping the band off the road and finally brought it to a frustrating, unofficial collapse in '98.

This last April 5, the 32-year-old Staley died accidentally by overdosing on the "speedball" mixture of heroin and cocaine.

"It's difficult to do interviews it's hard to talk about it," Cantrell says. "I'm just thankful to have a tour and work something I can focus on."

The tour, which comes to Hammerstein Ballroom on Wednesday, finds Cantrell opening for one of those bands he greatly influenced, Nickelback. It's his first road show in three years, and a relief from the isolation that gave birth to "Degradation Trip." Cantrell wrote the album's music in his home studio near Seattle, allowing scant outside influence. The loneliness inspired one song cheekily titled "Bargain Basement Howard Hughes."

While Cantrell recorded a solo album before (1998's "Boggy Depot"), only with the new project did he feel there was no going back to Alice in Chains. And that darkened his already melancholy muse. "Moving on [from Alice] was not something I was motivated to do," Cantrell says. "But they weren't going anywhere and I had to do something."

Between fall '98 and spring '99, Cantrell wrote no fewer than 25 songs. He then set about recording them with drummer Mike Bordin (of Faith No More) and bassist Robert Trujillo (of Suicidal Tendencies). The guitarist didn't want to use anyone from the Alice days, to certify his break with the band.

LONG PLAYER

Originally, he wanted to release all the music at once in a double set. But Roadrunner talked him out of it. The album still runs a hefty 73 minutes. The rest of the music will come out in early 2003. Though Cantrell agreed to split the music in two, he claims he wouldn't have worried about accusations of self-indulgence had he put it out at its full length. "Self indulgence?" he asks. "Does that mean that you aim to satisfy yourself? I made a career out of doing that."

Indeed.

With Alice in Chains, Cantrell found uniquely dark chord progressions to redefine heavy metal. "I was always into that dark vibe even before I started playing guitar in high school," he explains. "In choir we performed a cappella Gregorian chants from the 14th and 15th centuries. It was scary church music."

Not only did Alice use alarming chords, it arranged songs in arresting ways, as in the sudden end of "Would" or the twisting melody of "Rooster." "I like getting surprises and I like giving them," says Cantrell.

Despite emerging from the grunge scene, the group never got tainted by that tag, mainly because it didn't have the punk snobbery of, say, Nirvana. Alice became as admired by metalheads as by alternative fans, helping the definitions of both to mutate.

"We would tour with bands that were too conventionally 'rock' for some of the [Seattle] bands," Cantrell explains. "But we didn't care. We just wanted to get onstage."

The group expanded its sound with its influential "Unplugged" installment in '96. (Staind, for one, learned everything it knows from that set.) The session also underscored the fact that Alice was as much a harmony band as a riff act, with Staley and Cantrell blending their voices like twins. "I always liked the fact that we had a couple of vocalists and a couple of writers," says Cantrell.

It was Cantrell, though, who wrote most of the band's material. It doesn't bother him that it isn't widely known. "I know what I did," he says. "I don't need anybody else to tell me."

He needed this kind of self-assurance to deal with Staley. Imagine Cantrell's frustration at not being able to continue the band due to a key member's troubles and then the inevitable guilt over those feelings as Staley spiraled toward death. Cantrell admits this all roiled inside him, but he's loath to discuss it in detail, saying only "we had all done what we could do. At some point you have to go on with your life."

Now, he says, dealing with the grief "changes all the time. You feel different every day of your life. You just have to create your own space to survive, personally and professionally. Like everybody, I'm making up my life as I go along." *

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