Mad Season – “Above” Record Store Release 2013

I wrote yesterday about the luck I had in picking up a copy of the Record Store Day release of Mad Season’s 1995 album Above (remember… I live in Seattle; it was probably not as “in demand” in other places).  I previously wrote about Mad Season when their 10″ was released as part of Record Store Day Black Friday in 2012, so I won’t rehash the history of the band here – that info is available in plenty of other places.  Today I want to reflect on Above and its importance to me personally and to music in general, plus touch on the new tracks sung by Mark Lanegan, formerly of the Screaming Trees that appear on this release.

There were two times in my life when I heard a band for the first time and was flat out stunned and thought to myself, “this is exactly the type of band I’ve been waiting for.”  One of those bands was Godsmack (“Whatever”).  The other was Alice in Chains (“Man in the Box”), and Lane Staley’s voice was a huge part of that reaction.  Alice in Chains was dark, brooding, and heavy, but Staley’s voice had this odd high pitch that made it stand almost separate from the music.  The man could reach enormous emotional depths with his voice, depths that he certainly wallowed in as part of his own experience as a heroin addict spiraling around the drain of life.  You felt that the pain he sang about was real and came forth from a wound in his soul.  A friend of ours once referred to Alice and Chains as “slit your wrist and die music,” which, while a major exaggeration, speaks to the strong reaction people, including me, have to to their work.

My pain, is self chosen,
Or at least I believe it to be.
I could either drown,
Or pull off my skin and swim to shore,
Now I will grow a beautiful
Shell for all to see.
“River of Deceit”

The Record Store Day vinyl re-release of Above is a limited edition of 5,000 copies, and I scored #1280.  It consists of two 180 gram, heavy duty records, with the 10 tracks of the original album filling up the entire first record and accounting for the first three tracks on side C.  The remaining five songs are “new” material.  Logically I probably should have just bought the CD version, which in addition to the all of the songs appearing on the vinyl also comes with a live CD and DVD… so most likely I’ll break one of my own rules and buy both the vinyl and CD/digital version of the same album (plus I still have the original CD I bought back in 1995).  For Mad Season I’m willing to make that sacrifice.

The cracks and lines from where you gave up
Make an easy man to read.
For all the times you let them bleed you,
For little peace from God you plead.
“Wake Up”

Heroin took a major toll on the Seattle music scene in the 1980s and 90s, and Mad Season could be the poster band for staying away from it.  All four members had battled various addictions prior to working together as Mad Season, and heroin eventually claimed the lives of two of them – John Saunders in 1999, and Staley in 2002.  The pain and longing of addiction can be felt throughout Above, and one wonders if such a powerful album could have come from men who weren’t struggling.  But the cost was staggering.  The album is beautiful, but the toll was too much.  Can you separate the struggle from the art?  Could Above have been so brilliant if the musicians hadn’t had such deep reservoirs of pain to dip into?  I don’t know.  But it would have been a different album.

I don’t know anything,
I don’t know anything,
I don’t know anything,
I don’t know who I am.
“I Don’t Know Anything”

It actually hurts to listen to this album.  It always creates an emotional reaction in me… a slight tightness in the chest that comes from being able to “feel” the pain of another person.  So why listen to it then, right?  That doesn’t sound enjoyable.  But here’s the thing:  It’s real.  It’s the most real album you’ll ever listen to.  Ever.  The band members open themselves completely bare and say, “here we are, with all of our faults and struggles… come take a look, because we have nothing to hide.”  They don’t hold anything back, and that type of honesty is all too rare.

So what about the new songs?  Well, Mark Lanegan has a great voice… but it’s hard to think of his songs as Mad Season.  It just doesn’t sound right.  It’s hard for a band with a distinctive singer to continue without that voice, though some have certainly pulled it off successfully (AC/DC immediately comes to mind).  But really it may as well just be a new band.  And when the voice is as unique and integral to the band’s sound as Staley’s was, it’s almost impossible to continue on.  The new Alice in Chains album Black Gives Way to Blue is good… but it’s not Alice in Chains to me.  Lanegan can sing a soulful and even a sad song, but he doesn’t convey the type of anguish that Staley brought to every single word.  The songs are good… but to me it just isn’t Mad Season.

The last song is a remix of “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier,” one that didn’t appear on Above but still includes Staley’s vocals.  To hear this after a few songs sung by Lanegan simply confirms what I already thought – without Staley there is no Mad Season. I’d never heard this song before, and while it’s more of an upbeat tempo piece that the songs on Above, there’s still a longing quality to it, a man expressing his fears in a very clear way.  It’s a cool track, one that gives you a sense of what Mad Season’s second album could have sounded like – not as dark as Above, and with a more rock sound and faster pace.  I’ll bet it would have been great.  But we’ll never know.

Mad Season – “River of Deceit / I Don’t Know Anything (live)”

I wasn’t planning on going to look for Record Store Day releases today.  It’s “Black Friday”, and I didn’t feel like being out there on the roads with a bunch of half-crazed Walmart bargain hunters who have been on the go since sometime last night.  That crowd is bad enough when working on a full night sleep.  Plus there was only one thing I really wanted, the Mad Season “River of Deceit / I Don’t Know Anything (live)” limited edition 10″ single.  My local record shop wasn’t carrying it, so that meant going to Seattle… and this being the home of Mad Season, I figured my chances were about zero of getting a copy without standing in line in the cold and rain for two hours.  I even contemplated buying a copy someone had on eBay the night before the release for $29.99, but figured there would be more chances to pick it up online cheaper after the event.

But Holly was persistent, and with the promise of lattes from Uptown Espresso regardless of our level of Record Store Day success, it seemed worth a shot.  So we got in the car and drove to Easy Street Records in West Seattle, getting there at 7:15 AM, just after they opened.  Lo and behold, the group crowded around the Record Store Day section was small, and I was able to pick up a copy of the Mad Season 10″ (#1,767/2,000 on red vinyl, and only $6.99!), along with a mono 180 gram re-release of Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain”.  I also picked up a collectible used record I’m super excited about that will appear in a future blog.  Stay tuned.

So… Mad Season.  For those of you not familiar, this band formed in Seattle in 1994 and was a bit of a super group, featuring Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, Barrett Martin from the Screaming Trees, and bassist John Saunders.  They released their only album, Above, in 1995, and I personally was blown away by it.  It’s heavy and dark, and the songs perfectly fit Staley’s vocal style.  I played the hell out of the CD for a year or so, before shelving it for over a decade.  When I came back to it, it sounded just as amazing as it had before, if not more so.  Unfortunately Staley’s heroin addiction limited the band to just a handful of live shows, and he couldn’t get it together enough to work on another album.  Saunders died of a heroin overdose in 1999 (ironically he met McCready in rehab prior to the formation of Mad Season), and when Staley too succumbed to addiction in 2002 this dashed any hopes of a future album.  However, in 2012 there was a reunion concert, and allegedly there is a new album coming in 2013 with Mark Lanegan of the Screaming Trees doing some of the vocals.

I was excited about this 10″ because of the live version of “I Don’t Know Anything” (the A Side “River of Deceit” is the album version).  This is only the second live track I’ve come across, the other being, ironically, a version of “River of Deceit” appearing on the 1996 compilation, Bite Back – Live at the Crocodile Cafe.  The difference between the two is that  this vinyl track was recorded live in studio for radio in January 1995 prior to the release of Above, while the other was actually live from a show the band played at Seattle’s infamous Crocodile Cafe.  This radio version of “I Don’t Know Anything” was supposedly part of Pearl Jam’s Self-Pollution pirate radio broadcast, which Mad Season contributed along with “Lifeless Dead,” which will hopefully see the light of day on another record someday.  The track is of good quality, though it doesn’t sound like Staley’s voice was at it’s best.  There are some moments when you can really hear that classic Staley power and delivery, but overall it doesn’t capture his essence as well as the song on Bite Back does.  And that’s too bad, really, because few singers could plumb the depths of emotional despair the way Staley could.

There is also a VHS of Mad Season Live at the Moore, and this will supposedly come out on DVD in 2013 around the same time as the new Mad Season album.  Any chance to get some more live Mad Season songs is one I look forward to.  And I’m sure I’ll pick up the new album as well, but much like the post-Staley Alice in Chains album, replacing Staley will likely prove a daunting if not impossible task.

I’m disappointed that I never got a chance to see Alice in Chains or Mad Season live. The opportunities were certainly there, but that’s just the way it goes sometimes.  Staley was yet another Seattle heroin casualty, and we lost an amazing musician way too soon.  You can hear his pain in some of the Mad Season songs, most notably (in my opinion) “Wake Up”, just as you can in many of the Alice in Chains classics.  It’s a shame that no one was able to reach deep enough to help him with that pain before it was too late.