Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Mad Season - Above

We’ve enough books looking back on the Merseybeat scene trying, with things safely decades in the past, to put together the confluence of influences that makes great music scenes happen. And, Cameron Crowe’s “Singles” aside, we’ve started to look back to Seattle, circa 1990 or so, and try to make oh so much sense out of an albino, my libido, and the rise and demise of Soundgarden, Mother Love Bone, Mudhoney, Alice in Chains and that other power trio.

30 years later, my personal favorites are the two jam pieces: Temple of the Dog, and, today’s badass subject, Mad Season. Overlooked in too many ways: too bluesy, too self-indulgent, too noodle. And I’m here to tell you it’s all bullshit. It’s one of the best, honest recordings to come out of Seattle, different musical styles bashing up against each other in all the right ways, recorded too fast for people to be self-conscious about what they were laying down on tape. After a first gig in October of 1994, they had a full album out by March of ’95.

Powered by bassist John Baker Saunders, whose blues background would lend a different feel to the album, and drummer Barrett Martin, there are different pauses in the rhythm section, the drums more underplayed, which makes it all the more stunning when McCready’s black Les Paul starts to soar over the top, or when the multi-tracked Layne Staleys start to harmonize in a chorus ripped from the depths of his encroaching drug addiction.

From the minute the needle drops into the groove, and the bass notes of “Wake Up” hit the subwoofer, you realize that this is a band cut from a different cloth. Willing to sit back and let things develop and build under their own steam, McCready’s chords finding interesting cracks in the songs, letting Layne’s voice stand alone, not mixed with Jerry Cantrell’s, letting the blues bass carry melody and fill space before the Les Paul comes in to drive the song home.

“River of Deceit” won some air play back in ’95, but if you bought the album for the quiet strummed song, with its gently insistent chorus, you’d be in for a surprise when “X-Ray Mind” starts in. Tribal drumming (owing more to Stephen Perkins) builds to a rolling bass line, shimmering sheets of sparse guitar chords behind Staley’s voice, a riff that was a left over from Jimmy Page, beautifully arranged so that when the chorus hits, it lifts you to another place, another time. Leaving behind the need to have multiple guitars in the band, McCready’s work here is both sparser and more inventive than his work with Pearl Jam.

“I’m Above” fulfills the promise of that black Les Paul, hitting a heavy blues opening similar to Zeppelin’s Rover, and then it backs down, and softens the mood, giving full voice to Layne’s lyrics:
Try to keep bad blood in the past
Never thought a chance, a chance it would last
I have strength enough, enough to forgive
I desire peace where I live
I've been blessed with eyes to see this
Behind the unwhole truth you hide
Bite to remind the bitten, bigger
Mouth repaying tenfold wide

But the chorus has a different story to tell, the guitars cranking up, Layne’s voice more buried in the mix, pulled back into the band, rather than riding on top. A similar story is told in “Artificial Red”, a blues jam that Alice in Chains would never have even tried. This could have been on Jeff Beck’s Truth album except its too loose, too loud, and too raw. It’s the House of the Rising Sun, and the call and response of the vocals and the guitar harken back to older days before McCready solos into the atmosphere for a short spin.

“Lifeless Dead” is one of the standout tracks that recalls the best of Alice in Chains mixed with Led Zeppelin, the minor key vocals, full drums that power the modal guitar riff that drives this song, and McCready’s guitar riding on top in the very best ways that Page used to. The production stands out because no matter how loud you turn this one up, you can hear everything. And it sounds better the louder it gets.

And you’ll want to leave the volume up for “November Hotel”, a staggering 7 minute jam of power house drumming, soloing guitar and thundering bass that leaves you exhausted and breathless ready for the church hymnal that is the closing track on the original LP “All Alone”. While the album opened with “Wake Up”, Layne’s haunting singing on this, along with the soft percussion and keys, takes on a life of its own.

Or, it simply takes a life. The Seattle rock and roll lifestyle would take bassist Saunders in ’99, and Staley just a few years later. And if you’re just coming to this album, there is no way to not hear the echoes of a life to short. Not only can we hear the ending of Layne’s life here in his lyrics, but his girlfriend Demri Parott would die of an overdose in October on 1996, adding one more layer to the profound level of loss that surrounded the band.

There is now a deluxe edition the completes the set, giving us the final four songs recorded by the band, with Screaming Trees vocalist Mark Lanagan sitting in for Layne, as well as finally putting to vinyl Live at the Moore, a concert by Mad Season that has been available on VHS for a number of years. The final songs are a curiosity, and not bad, but they add nothing to the original album. Live at the Moore is a great show, and well worth listening to. As always, it’s a treat to hear a young band be able to bring it live and sound great doing it. For all the people who had the VHS and always wanted a serious audio copy to play, this release is a welcome one. The videos are freely available on youtube as well. 

- The Rock Iguana

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