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.