Above (Deluxe Edition)

Mad Season

Columbia, 2013


REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


The words "Seattle supergroup" immediately conjure up images of flannel-wearing drug addicts in torn jeans or long shorts playing power chords. Perhaps sensing this, and wanting a break from the inevitable comparisons to their respective bands, the foursome that comprised Mad Season decided to take their music in a different direction than the popular grunge/alt-rock of the day.

Yes, one can hear elements of Pearl Jam in Mike McCready's fluid guitar playing, or Alice In Chains in the somber melancholy songwriting and Layne Staley's vocals, but merely calling this a combination of the two does the music an injustice. Above has its problems, but they aren't the result of a lack of creativity; almost nothing on here sounds like it could have been on Dirt, Ten or even Sweet Oblivion.

Eighteen years on, with the grunge movement long settled and the memory of that great music ground to dust by Nickelback and nu-metal, it is bracing and still a bit depressing to hear Above with fresh ears. Mad Season decided to craft an album full of long, somber rock songs, choosing mood over head-banging, forcing you to listen to the words and get lost in the performances.

That's not to say there isn't rock; McCready has long been a stellar rock guitarist for Pearl Jam, but here he uses the guitars to add texture and layer to the songs instead of to create excitement. But only rarely does the tempo pick up until the instrumental "November Hotel," in which McCready runs wild with riffs and solos while the rhythm section jams behind him. Being allowed to simply jam - all while newly sober, no less - is clearly freeing for the man, and he would eventually bring that sensibility to Pearl Jam concerts, if not albums. It remains Above's best moment, not least for the catharsis it brings after the drudge of what comes before.

Staley, of course, made a career with Alice in Chains singing angst-filled grinding metal songs, so the vocals are pretty much what one would expect, although the lyrics seem more inspired by religious images and Khalil Gibrain's my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 The Prophet than drugs and self-loathing (the two cheerful elements of nearly all AIC songs). Instead of a metal background, drummer Barrett Martin and bassist John "Baker" Saunders bring a bluesier approach, creating a low-key feel - a drone, in some cases - to the music.

This approach means there is little in the way of hooks, excitement or melodies that stick with the listener; it's darn near impossible to listen to this one all the way through. However, the final four songs are the best. "I Don't Know Anything" is a hard lump of AIC-inspired metal that Black Sabbath would be proud of, while "Long Gone Day" actually swings a bit and features vibes, saxophone and Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees, helping out his bandmate Martin.

"November Hotel" is a good lead-in to the closing "All Alone," a stark and beautiful meditation. Staley is one of the few vocalists who can pull beauty from pain, and he knows when to sing and when to pull back, making this a haunting closer to a difficult album.

The deluxe reissue of this album features the cover of John Lennon's "I Don't Wanna Be A Soldier," a brief acoustic piece and three songs recorded for the second album but never finished. Martin's extensive liner notes tell the story; the band wrote a dozen or so songs for the second album but never finished them, mostly because Staley had left to go back to Alice in Chains. Martin and McCready drifted back to their bands and Mad Season was no more...until 2012, when McCready started sorting through the unreleased songs. He and Martin asked Mark Lanegan to write lyrics and sing on three of the best ones, which appear on this collection: "Locomotive," "Black Book of Fear" and "Slip Away."

Unfortunately, the songs are pretty much grunge-by-numbers, free of the drama and gravitas of Above and Staley's lyrics. Fans will probably appreciate hearing them, but they are really nothing to get excited about.

Also in the deluxe edition are the full concert from the band's appearance at the Moore Theater in Seattle and a DVD showcasing that concert, two songs played for Self-Pollution Radio, nine songs for a Live At RKCNDY show and the music video for "River Of Deceit," the band's only sort-of hit from the album. The Moore show is seven songs and bizarrely avoids putting the camera on McCready until the final song, choosing instead for multiple, lingering close-ups of Layne Staley. The other four songs from that show are in a separate chapter and were clearly shot from the balcony on a home camera, while the RKCNDY show is more of an intimate club and features jokes, Staley smoking and throwing shirts to the audience, and a little more sense of fun, even if it's clear at this point that Mad Season is a side project for the three principals (Saunders hadn't been part of the grunge scene at all until this).

Above remains a dense, hypnotic slog that is equal parts power and subtlety with a hint of dark beauty, surrounded by a morass that takes guts to wade through. The deluxe edition is only worthwhile if you're a big fan of this disc or Staley; newcomers or those who only know "River Of Deceit" should stick to the original disc.

Rating: B-

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