“Wake up young man, it’s time to wake up,” the haunting voice of 26 year old Layne Staley breathes into a microphone, echoing into the void space between John “Baker” Saunders’ ominous bass line and Mike McCready’s flange-laden guitar composition– both flanked by the light hands of Barrett Martin’s slow and steady rhythm on the drums. The emotion in his voice, telling just as much of the story as the actual lyrics, cannot be learned or practiced, but is a beautiful human response achieved from a life burdened with arduous torment.
Eighteen years after it’s initial release on Columbia Records, Mad Season has re-released Above, the cult-classic album created by four friends who set out with a “desire to make a different kind of music,” while all the hype of the Seattle grunge scene was fizzling out in the mid 1990’s. At a time when great, original music has seen its better days, the remaining members of Mad Season reconvened last summer to go through the original tapes from their attempted sophomore album. Not wanting all of those songs to remain locked away forever, Martin and McCready chose a few of the best tracks from those old magnetic tapes and decided to honor their lost friends, Layne and Baker, with one last eulogy set to the sounds of, “one of the heaviest blues bands to come out of Seattle,” as Barrett Martin describes. They brought in Mark Lanegan, guest singer on the original 1995 release, as the expressive voice that would carry the band into the realm of that unfinished second album, honoring the departed members of the band with his touching, soulful lyrics and delivery.
Disc one contains the original Above album, remixed and reformatted, as well as five bonus tracks– four of them unheard until this year. The sound quality is absolutely top-notch. Brett Eliason, producer of the original Above record, really went above and beyond remastering the eighteen year old icon.
In Locomotive, Lanegan’s message is all too apparent- part one of his musical eulogy. It’s one-hundred percent evident that the instrumental composition came from a time capsule, hidden away since 1996. It’s raw and heavy and just– Mad Season.
Black Book Of Fear is a pretty, if not tearful number written by Saunders, McCready, Martin, and special guest, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck. Lanegan’s complimentary lyrics depict a somber story, but I’ll let you interpret it on your own. Isn’t that the fun of it?
Slip Away melds together the feelings of the previous two tracks in classic McCready fashion. The hollow minor chords push the song along, leading to a solo that paints the musical picture that McCready described in a recent interview, saying, you can just, “feel the pain.”
As a bonus, they tossed in their rendition of John Lennon’s I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier; a track that was recorded for the John Lennon tribute, Working Class Hero, in 1995. I’m glad they did because I had never heard this version before; I thought I was hearing a new Layne song! I’m actually glad that I hadn’t ever heard it until now– it was a nice little gift.
Disc two contains a perfect set from the band, recorded on April 29, 1995 at the Moore Theater in Seattle. The sound quality, again, is amazing. It’s almost as clean as the studio remaster, and is definitely high-quality for a live concert recording over fifteen years old.
The setlist/tracklist includes:
- Wake Up
- Lifeless Dead
- Artificial Red
- River Of Deceit
- I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier
- Long Gone Day
- I’m Above
- I Don’t Know Anything
- X-Ray Mind
- All Alone
- November Hotel
The emotion that the boys (and 42 year old Baker) put into that show can really be felt in every song. McCready’s leads are electrifying to the point of actual face-melting (put on some SPF before you listen). What really adds to the already immense sound is the saxophone work from Seattle jazz musician, Skerik. I keep wanting to call him Shriek… The noises he produces on the saxophone are unbelievable. He goes from a standard jazz sax, to blissful shrieks that could be mistaken for the sound of an electric guitar, or even a Moog synth. Make sure to notice him on I don’t Wanna Be A Soldier, Long Gone Day, and most notably on November Hotel. The man goes OFF!
Layne’s voice is absolutely massive and soulful and beautiful all at the same time. No frills. No auto-tune. He fills the mic with blistering human emotion in every word. To hear it is bliss, but we get to see it, too.
The DVD on the third disc has been a “Long Gone Day” coming to say in the least. I’ve seen this footage plenty of times and even have it on my tablet, but the quality on those previous versions comes up way short. Thanks to the technologies of today, they were able to produce a high-definition quality video with clear, crisp audio. Aside from MTV’s Alice In Chains Unplugged and old Alice music videos, we’ve never had such a clear look at the singer doing what he does best. From only listening so much, people sometimes tend to forget that beautiful sound is coming directly out of the man himself. Being able to watch Layne sing on such a high-quality DVD is truly a gift.
The rest of the band is just as fun to watch. From seeing Martin totally losing himself on the drums, to McCready putting to use a double-necked Gibson SG (a la Jimmy Page), to Baker being the professional bluesman and comedian that he was– it’s definitely something that shouldn’t be taken for granted being able to watch.
The DVD contains plenty of footage from the concert at the Moore Theater. Seven songs are pro-shot and another handful recorded from, what I would assume is, a lower quality camera, maybe belonging to the band. Also included is footage from the entire concert they performed at RKCNDY in Seattle, on New Years Day, 1995, as well as their Self Pollution Radio video. The SPR video is another one I’ve seen several times, but having it on a DVD makes the audio/visual experience ten times better. The guys are really enjoying each other in this segment. Lastly, the DVD concludes with the one music video they made, for River Of Deceit.
Before I conclude, allow me to mention one more thing included in the contents of the box-set. Inside of the quad-fold, cardboard-stock packaging is a booklet featuring the song lyrics from Wake Up to November Hotel, to Lanegan’s newly published lyrics on the three bonus tracks. Of course, you’ll see the familiar credits, and thank you’s inside as well, but in the beginning of the booklet is a note from Barrett Martin– more like an essay, actually. I urge you all to read it. Read it twice– then read it again. He beautifully transcribes the story of the band from its adventurous beginning to its tragic end, and gives a heartfelt eulogy that touches upon John “Baker” Saunders, Layne Staley, and the band itself. If, when you read it, you aren’t fighting back the lump in your throat that precedes tears, you are either more a man than I, or have no heart at all. It was a very nice read and a perfect addition to the reissue.
Finally, I want to thank the guys of Mad Season for putting this out, and for Barrett Martin’s vivid recollection of his time with the band, and with Layne and Baker.
If it’s even necessary or allowed (with a reissue) I want to give this box set a score of 5 out of 5. It’s simply amazing… now go buy it!
Also, for you audiophiles, look for the double-vinyl release on RSD (Record Store Day), April 20th, which will include the contents of disc one of the “Above Deluxe” box-set. Reserve your copy today– I’m sure supplies are very limited. There are also t-shirts being sold at several online stores right now in case the album alone isn’t enough Mad Season for you.