Where was grunge, or alternative rock, in 1995? Kurt Cobain had died one year earlier at his Seattle home. Before 1995 was out, Alice in Chains had released its third album, the last with vocalist Layne Staley and also its final studio LP until 2009. Foo Fighters, born from the ashes of Nirvana, scored a hit with its July debut, but by and large, the brief, blazing supremacy of grunge was ceding to other genres like post-grunge and Britpop. Yet 1995 was the year in which Staley joined with Pearl Jam’s guitarist Mike McCready, Screaming Trees’ drummer-percussionist Barrett Martin and The Walkabouts’ John Baker Saunders to release Above, the only album by the grunge supergroup Mad Season. Eighteen years later, Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings have reinvigorated Above as a 2-CD/1-DVD Deluxe Edition (88725 47339 2), as well as a 12-inch 2-LP expanded vinyl edition and a digital version.
Above doesn’t stray far from the blueprint typically associated with so-called grunge albums. Like the best of the genre, it removes all of the artifice once associated with hard rock in favor of a raw, "pure" sound. The combo (vocalist, guitarist, bassist and drummer) is far from unusual. The lyrics are expectedly dark and angst-ridden. The sound is appropriately stripped-down. One can practically hear the flannel shirts! So why is Above being celebrated all these many years later? The album affords another opportunity to evaluate the work of Layne Staley, who tragically died of a drug overdose in 2002. He gifted Above with his only full set of original lyrics. It also showcases his three bandmates in peak form, including Saunders, who fell victim to drugs in 1999. Each member brought subtle touches, and crisp, tight interplay, to the somber, tense set of songs. (Every track on the original album is credited to Staley for lyrics, and Mad Season for music, save "I'm Above" and "Long Gone Day," with music by McCready, Martin and guest Mark Lanegan.) Anguish is the thread which connects each of the album’s tracks, making Above an emotionally taxing but intermittently beautiful song cycle that veers from sadness to anger and back again.
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The vaguely lysergic, dirge-like atmosphere of “Wake Up” sets the scene for this tour of Staley’s psyche. This opening cut offers a dark portrait of a man trapped in a relationship. “Wake up, young man, it’s time to wake up…your love affair has got to go,” Staley sings with gravity, pointing out “for ten long years the leaves to rake up…” but assuring the song’s target, “You’re not a crack up, dizzy and weakened by the haze…” Is he singing to himself? The imagery, such as those leaves to rake up, is clever enough to place the protagonist in some kind of stifling suburbia, and the pain rings true. Barrett Martin’s vibes and John Baker Saunders’ low bassline establish the mood for the song; the melody doesn’t soar, nor does the arrangement veer too far from the sparseness. A couple of sung-screamed outbursts, and a searing McCready guitar solo, add some color, but generally, it’s all somewhat sterile and controlled. Here and elsewhere, album producer Brett Eliason never overplays his hand.
Harmonies enliven “X-Ray Mind,” another look at a clearly troubled relationship. Sometimes Staley puts aside conventional notions of grammar or syntax: “Do the laughs die when one such as I run and allow myself time for own true needs?” It may be offbeat, but the pained message comes through loud and clear. McCready’s tough guitar riff and Martin’s exotic drumbeat support and strengthen Staley’s vocal. The band is in peak form on the heavy blues of “Artificial Red,” another interior monologue in which the singer poses the question, “In the house of ill repute, is this the place I search for love, when my need is within me, a gift from above?” “Lifeless Dead” has the quartet locked into a thick, hard-rock groove, with not a single glimmer of light in its murky fog of harsh imagery and monotonous vocals. With the traditional blues form as a springboard, Mad Season crafted its own equivalent perfect for its decade.
Mad Season made the Top 10 via the single “River of Deceit,” but it’s not markedly more “commercial” than the other tracks here. “My pain is self chosen,” Staley announces in the song. “At least, so the prophet says,” he adds, not shying away from more bizarrely evocative imagery: “A head full of lies is the weight, tied to my waist…” Melodically, the song’s low-key vibe almost approaches “pretty” territory thanks to the gentle vocal and shimmering guitar. Indeed, it’s hard not be affected by the emotional rawness: “I could either drown/Or pull off my skin and swim to shore/Now I can grow a beautiful shell for all to see…” Another strikingly attractive song is “Long Gone Day,” with music co-written by Mark Lanegan. It's a reflection on the past as well as a spiritual plea for “God to bring my sunny day.” Martin’s evocative percussion (a marimba?) makes for a cold spin on bossa nova, and a saxophone even wanders in courtesy of Skerik (a.k.a. Nalgas Sin Carne).
But, unfortunately, Layne Staley never found that sunny day. The hard-hitting nominal title track, “I’m Above” is another angry riposte (“You say I made your life a living hell/And yet still let me pay you when I fell”), with guitar riffs alternately crunchy and tender. Melodically it’s still rather one-note, and without a sweeping melody line, it all feels methodical until furious high harmonies inject vivid life into its hard-edged chorus. Mark Lanegan pitches in for the song’s emotive vocals and also co-wrote the song. Set to screeching feedback, “I Don’t Know Anything” is built around more questioning, this time with a universal bent: “Why we have to live in so much hate every day? Why the fighting and the coming down, am I sane? I don’ t know…” Staley is clearly searching for that silver lining, but simply cannot find it. As in “Lifeless Dead” and “Long Gone Day,” imagery of blood figures into the song’s lyrics.
Two unusual tracks close out the album. The lengthy instrumental “November Hotel” offers up more of McCready’s potent fretwork, accompanied by the dynamic drumbeat of Martin, while “All Alone” places ethereal harmonies incanting the title lyrics (“We’re all alone”) over a spare soundscape. Whether you call Above soul-searching or navel-gazing, it remains a potent, intense snapshot of a particular place and time, rendered timeless by the strong musicianship of four distinct individuals and anchored by the tortured, personal poetry of Layne Staley.
The new Deluxe Edition has been expanded with five bonus songs. The brief, acoustic instrumental “Interlude” had been featured on promotional pressings of the original album, but here finds a natural home as a bridge to three newly-recorded songs. These previously unissued cuts arose from a 2012 reunion of McCready, Martin and producer Eliason at which time they revisited tapes for the second, abandoned Mad Season album. The trio then enlisted Mark Lanegan to sing and write lyrics. The growling, chugging “Locomotive” is lyrically of a piece with the album (“No time to ride on the back of a beast such as suicide/Johnny come lately, the black light suits you, baby”) and also features some dazzling guitar and a beat that evokes the titular train. “Black Book of Fear,” co-written with Peter Buck, has a slow-burning, classic feel thanks to its elegiac, wistful melody. The bleak “Slip Away” is a firestorm of a track, with scorching guitar pyrotechnics and cavernous echo. The bonus tracks, all on Disc One of the 2-CD/1-DVD set, are rounded out with a remix of “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier” from the 1995 John Lennon tribute album Working Class Hero. Its crisp remix befits the forthright performance, and Lennon’s hypnotic melody makes it a comfortable match for the material on Above.
The second CD premieres the complete audio to Mad Season’s Live at the Moore concert, recorded in Seattle on April 29, 1995 and remixed by Brett Eliason in stereo. The concert saw the entirety of Above, as well as “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier,” performed. (Four tracks from the gig were released in 1995 on a CD single, but this package marks the first appearance of the entire concert.) If the audio component isn’t enough for you, the DVD has video of seven tracks from Live at the Moore, newly edited by director Duncan Sharp and mixed into 5.1 surround by Eliason. A full concert from New Year’s Eve 1994-1995 at Seattle’s RKCNDY club filmed by Kevin Shuss is also on the DVD; for that gig, the band also played the Lennon cover but dropped “X-Ray Mind” and “Long Gone Day.” Both of Mad Season’s songs from the Self-Pollution Radio specials, plus the video to “River of Deceit,” round out the DVD’s generous contents.
The deluxe edition has been assembled under the supervision of producers Martin and McCready. With the inclusion of so much live footage as well as the newly-finished outtakes and bonus material, it’s a near-definitive survey of the short but blazing career of Mad Season. Joe Gastwirt has solidly remastered the album and the concerts for this presentation. The larger-than-usual digipak includes a lengthy, eleven-page essay from Barrett Martin as well as lyrics, credits and photographs. Martin’s touching yet still informative essay eschews the term “grunge,” favoring “Alternative Music” while celebrating the pantheon of the genre. Martin fondly remembers his fallen comrades Staley and Saunders, and offers insight into the process that yielded the new-old songs.
The Deluxe Edition of Mad Season’s Above is a relatively lavish testament to an important period in rock history, yes, but moreover it’s a reappraisal of the dark, fleeting beauty of Layne Staley’s lyrics and the sympathetic musical setting of Mike McCready, Barrett Martin and John Baker Saunders. For many, it will prove a strange and difficult, yet moving, “gift from above,” indeed.
sandy perez says
Great review. Layne Staley was an incredible vocalist, and above is such an underrated gem.