Review Summary: A spacious, mellow and loosely grooving affair that is just short of being a true classic.
The chemistry of making music is often quite similar to the chemistry of love. Sometimes there’s an instant connection with a stranger, a spontaneous reaction. But, more often, love grows out of shared experiences and interests that are discovered over time, finding the right combination of chemicals for combustion. If you’re lucky enough to be making love to, or music with, the right person, you’ll find that you complement and understand each other on a subconscious and instinctive level. You play off each other and find notes within the same tune rather than clumsily mashing appendages together in different ways until you stumble upon the ones that fit.
By that standard, super-groups are a difficult thing to evaluate. Invariably, comparisons to the regular, and often great, bands of the individual members will arise. The regular band is probably one that already has chemistry, has already figured out how to fit the pieces together, already know which positions and tempos are the best. The super-group, even when it does get its constituent reactionary mixture right, will invariably suffer in comparison to the usual product(s). This is why groups like Velvet Revolver are largely hit-or-miss affairs. The individual band members may be great at what they do, but they’re not necessarily great at doing it with each other. Mad Season’s ‘Above’ is/was the exception to the rule.
One of the reasons why the album works so well is that the band doesn’t seem to be trying to write concise and structured songs per se. The songs grow and develop organically. At times, the band almost sounds like a quintessential 90’s blues and jazz referencing jam band, but underpinned by strong vocal melodies. This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than on the opener “Wake Up” and “Long Gone Day” which are driven by gentle bass and drum grooves and glockenspiel (!) melodies. Unexpected instrumentation in the form of congas (“X-Ray Mind”, “All Alone”) and saxophone (“Long Gone Day”) also make occasional appearances.
Bassist Robert John Saunders and guitarist Mike McCready (of Pearl Jam) share the most audible chemistry. McCready has always been an unabashed interpreter of 70’s blues-based based rock and Saunders was a blues and musician, so the connection makes sense. The slow-burning “Artificial Red” is a shameless blues workout for the duo and “Lifeless Dead” and “I Don’t Know Anything” feature archetypical heavy-blues/psychedelic riffs.
However, perhaps because of the generally tasteful restraint shown by the band, the true standout on the album is vocalist Layne Staley. Most of these songs might have merely been pleasant but faceless jams if not for Staley’s crafting of fine melodies over them. The band channels his unique melodic sensibilities in much more upbeat and conventionally accessible directions than one is used to hearing from him, and the end result is often inspired. This is particularly evident on “Wake Up”, “River of Deceit”, and the vocal duet with guest vocalist Mark Lanegan (of Screaming Trees) on “Long Gone Day”.
Occasionally Staley reverts to sounding like the Staley of Alice in Chains and while this sometimes works in the band’s favour (“X-Ray Mind”), it also provides the few instances where the band’s meshing of styles doesn’t quite work. The verses of “I’m Above” feature very pretty Beatles-esque harmonies by Staley and Lanegan, but is derailed by a pre-chorus that attempts a cathartic crescendo that sounds disjointed and awkward. “Lifeless Dead” and “I Don’t Know Anything” are probably the weakest songs on the album because there aren’t enough vocal dynamics to prevent the songs from sinking into a monotonous psychedelic sludge.
In the end the band turns in a record that has none of the dense sonic attacks or downbeat moodiness that the grunge era is often characterized by and that you’d probably expect from a grunge super-group. In its place is a spacious, mellow and loosely grooving affair that showcases a surprising amount of complementary chemistry between the musicians. The love-making equivalent of this album is probably the kind where the heady passion has been replaced by a deeper form of intimacy and understanding. Poignantly and ironically, chemistry and chemical addiction defines this record for a great number of reasons, and only a few relatively minor mis-steps keep it from being a true classic.