Friday Full-Length: Mad Season, Above

Posted in Bootleg Theater on May 19th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

Mad Season, Above (1995)

Sometimes you just have to wonder how an artist or a band got away with making the record they made. Mad Season‘s Above was released in 1995, in the post-Kurt Cobain wain of the Seattle grunge era, and I suppose the enticing tagline for Columbia Records was probably something along the lines of, “Features members of Pearl JamScreaming Trees and Alice in Chains,” but even given that, with its ultra-dark cover art by vocalist Layne Staley (the Alice in Chains component) and a collection of correspondingly melancholic, mostly quiet and depressive-if-soulful songs, Above was hardly a fit alongside Celine Dion or Mariah Carey, from both of whom the label also released studio outings that year. “Lifeless Dead?” Come on.

Still, I remember hearing “River of Deceit” on the radio when it came out, so to say the least, it was a different era. Mad Season was the product of Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready meeting blues bassist John Baker Saunders in rehab, starting a trio with Skin Yard/Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin and finally recruiting Staley on vocals partially with the hope of getting him clean from what was by then an already well documented history of abusing heroin. I guess it just kind of happened that the aesthetic they hit on was a grown-up incarnation of the style their main outfits played — an adult grunge — still heavy and edgy in its approach, but given a sense of class through Saunders‘ low end and the patient flow within the tracks that felt both immediately accessible and decidedly non-commercial.

Above is awash in hooks, from the minimalist opener and longest track (immediate points) “Wake Up” with its gorgeous showcase of the sadness that no one since Staley has been able to convey and none of his contemporaries could match, through the more rocking “I’m Above,” the almost folkish “River of Deceit,” and down through the rolling “I Don’t Know Anything” and percussive, sax-laden lounge-vibing “Long Gone Day,” which is one of two inclusions on the original version of the record alongside “I’m Above” to feature Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan, pre-Queens of the Stone Age but already by that point established as a solo artist, to brilliant affect in a layered duet. But as catchy as it gets — and even the six-minute ramble “Artificial Red” is catchy — Above never feels cloying or like it’s grasping for its audience’s attention in the way that some later grunge records do, having given up the urgency that fueled them as the players moved from being punk and noise acts and into what would ultimately break them through to a wider audience and define a generation of rock and roll. It’s not by any means a friendly record.

A big part of that is directly attributable to Staley‘s vocal performance, and it’s a spirit that almost immediately following Above‘s release he’d take back with him to Alice in Chains for the recording of their later-1995 self-titled on songs like “Shame in You.” Though Above nearly digs itself a hole with the seven-minute guitar-led jam “November Hotel” as the penultimate cut, that only seems to make Staley‘s voice feel like that much more of a treasure when it shows up again late in the atmospheric finale “All Alone,” a wash of its own, no less immersive than the spacious keys and guitar, subtle percussion and gentle bassline that back it. As distinct as he was in his approach, there was just about no way he wouldn’t become a defining presence in Mad Season, and though the band would only do this one studio release before his death from an overdose in 2002 — 15 years ago now — his contributions to Above provide some of the clearest evidence of just how special he was as an artist and a once-in-a-generation figure, and of course, it’s the work that lives on.

In 2013, Columbia reissued Above in a deluxe edition with bonus material from a never-released second album with Lanegan as frontman (they worked under the name Disinformation at the time, circa 1997), and a DVD of live footage and more. Saunders also died of an overdose, in 1999, so a full reunion was never possible, but in addition to that reissue, McCready and Martin joined forces with Guns ‘n’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan — the economist — and Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell to perform a set in Jan. 2015 with the Seattle Symphony that was quietly released as a live album released later that same year. There was once again discussion of new material at the time, but to-date nothing has come to fruition.

The bottom line is Above feels even more resonant today than it did 22 years ago, and as always, I hope you enjoy.

Thanks for listening.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note the passing, first reported yesterday and apparently the result of suicide, of Chris Cornell. I had already chosen to finish the week with this record when I saw the news, but though he made it longer than either Cobain or Staley, I don’t think anyone who appreciated any of his work in Soundgarden or elsewhere who wouldn’t say he was taken too soon, and all the more tragically by his own hand. For someone who touched so many lives and influenced a generation of singers in his wake — let alone someone with three teenage kids — to feel so empty while having so much to live for boggles the mind, but until you’ve been there, you don’t know.

Cornell was arguably the best singer of his Seattle-based generational contemporaries — Staley was more emotive but didn’t have the range to soar Glenn Hughes-style like Cornell could, Cobain was a punker, Lanegan’s a bluesman and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder might stand up as a comparison point in terms of charisma, but never had the force of delivery that seemed to come so naturally from Cornell. I’ve never been the biggest Soundgarden fan, but his is a significant, irreplaceable loss.

Maybe you saw, maybe you didn’t, but I announced on the social medias last weekend that The Patient Mrs. and I are expecting. It’s a boy, due somewhere around Oct. 15. He’s got a name, but mostly we’ve been calling him “The Pecan” because it sounds less threatening than “The Impending” — which was my alternative — and a few weeks ago, The Patient Mrs.’ you’re-going-to-have-a-baby app said the fetus was the size of “a Southern pecan,” which was hilarious to us both because how the hell big is that and what difference does it make if it’s Southern? If he’s born with a Molly Hatchet shirt on or some shit, I’m going to be really, genuinely surprised.

But anyway, that’s the big news I’ve been hinting toward around here. I mentioned the Pecan in my Roadburn coverage, briefly, and subsequently removed the reference, but a couple people caught it and I saw some speculation, so there you go. The Pecan. Due in October. Life changes.

Do I know how it will affect this site? Nope. My thing all along has been not knowing how whatever comes along will affect the site, and it’s worked out pretty well, so I’m gonna roll with that and go where it takes me.

Fatherhood. Oof.

Anyway, though conversations about said Pecan occupy just about my every day at this point, there’s still a while to go before the guy actually shows up and plenty to keep me busy in the meantime. For example! — my job is ending in less than a month. Unemployment. Again. I’ve learned a few valuable lessons in my year at Hasbro and I’m appreciative of that, but apart from the salary hit I can’t say I’m heartbroken to move on. Truth be told, I’ve never enjoyed working for anyone but myself. If I had any money to start a business, that’s what I’d do with it.

But I don’t. So maybe stay-at-home-dad for as long as I can and then see what comes along. If I can pick up something part-time and/or remote, all the better. Somebody has to need an editor, right?

On that note, here’s what’s up for next week, subject to change as always. Straight from the notes:

Mon.: Radio Adds, Desert Wizards video, and some cool Naxatras news.
Tue.: Elder review, Ephedra video premiere, update from Keep it Low and more.
Wed.: WhiteNails review/album stream, Year of the Cobra Six Dumb Questions.
Thu.: Trippy Wicked video premiere, maybe another track premiere (waiting to see what shakes out), otherwise a Demon Head review.
Fri.: Vokonis video premiere/album review.

That’s where we’re at now, though, yeah, some stuff is still up in the air.

Staying home this weekend, as opposed to driving to Connecticut, and hoping for a laid back couple days in the air conditioning watching baseball as one does during the summer. The Patient Mrs. and I were talking about going to see Alien Covenant tomorrow morning — 10:40AM IMAX showing, baby; we roll in style — but that’s tentative. Whatever you’re up to, I hope you have a great and safe time.

Thanks for reaching, and please check out the forum and radio stream.

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Friday Full-Length: Corrosion of Conformity, Deliverance

Posted in Bootleg Theater on March 13th, 2015 by JJ Koczan

C.O.C., Deliverance (1994)

You’d be more likely to win a fight against the sky than successfully argue against C.O.C.‘s Deliverance. Their 1994 fourth album and released as their first on Columbia Records a decade after their debut, Eye for an Eye, it was the record that marked the beginning of the Pepper Keenan era. Following 1991’s Blind, on which Keenan played guitar and sang on “Vote with a Bullet,” he stepped into the guitarist/vocalist role to fill the gap vacated by Karl Agell, playing alongside the founding trio of guitarist Woody Weatherman, bassist/vocalist Mike Dean and drummer/sometimes vocalist Reed Mullin. The change was palpable sonically. While Blind was a shift in itself, departing from the crossover hardcore punk/thrash of Eye for an Eye and its 1985 follow-up, Animosity, Deliverance pushed boldly into riff-led heavy Southern rock, and in so doing became a standard-bearer for the genre that still holds up 21 years later. Swamped with classic songs — and, at the time, commercial hits — like “Albatross” and “Clean My Wounds,” Deliverance is in many ways the quintessential heavy rock album, and even deeper cuts like “Shake Like You,” “My Grain” and “Shelter” offer no letup in quality. Like the best of the classics, to even attempt to estimate the scope of its influence would be futile, and it remains as relevant today as it was when it was released, if not more so.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that, after several years and two albums by the original trio, Corrosion of Conformity have reunited with Keenan for a round of UK dates that, presumably, herald much more touring to come. Sooner or later, they’ll bring that show to the States. Keenan, who’s spent the last decade in Down following the release of C.O.C.‘s underrated 2005 outing, In the Arms of God, carries with him a commercial profile that the band seems to have embraced, playing bigger rooms and promising standards from the Deliverance album and its 1996 follow-up, Wiseblood, in the setlist. The question is inevitably whether or not the four-piece will construct a new album, but with each rehearsal video that surfaces or concert report that comes out, the anticipation for this form of C.O.C.‘s return grows more fervent. It might be a year or two before they get there, since they seem to be testing the waters on the road first, but unless something falls apart in a big way or for some reason the situation is untenable for the players involved, a new record seems fairly inevitable.

But of course, that’s speculation. In the meantime, enjoy the classic on its own terms and if you haven’t, dig into 2012’s self-titled and 2014’s IX, released with DeanWeatherman and Mullin, because both records were badass and are in severe danger of being lost in the wake of this reunion. It would be a shame. Hope you dig it.

I’m not around Monday, so I’m going to try to get a podcast up. Have to take a defensive driving class because the problem with Massachusetts driving is definitely me and not Massachusetts driving. Right. Whatever. I’ll try to get a podcast up Sunday night or early Monday morning, but I’ve also been traveling this week, so it’s been a total mess. Have also slept like crap and been out of my mind generally, hence the lack of reviews. Le Betre/King Buffalo on Tuesday, Radio Adds, Acid King and Blackout after that. Also need to do that Monolord record and about a million fucking others. I can’t even keep it all straight in my head. Whatever.

If you’ve emailed me or Facebooked me this week and I haven’t gotten back, I’m sorry. I’m working on it.

Hope you have a great and safe weekend. Please check out the forum and radio stream.

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Saturday Full-Length: Judas Priest, Stained Class

Posted in Bootleg Theater on December 27th, 2014 by JJ Koczan

Judas Priest, Stained Class (1978)

The Judas Priest catalog has a few classics in it, or I guess they wouldn’t be Judas Priest, and while they’ve joined the ranks of those metal bands who seem to retire as often as not, there’s little arguing one can do with their early years — they’re the raw building blocks on which heavy metal would be constructed. And as much as Black Sabbath gets credit for inventing the sound, listening to a record like 1978’s Stained Class, there’s little doubt Priest played a major role in shaping the style and visual aesthetic of the genre.

Stained Class is the fourth Judas Priest album, following 1977’s Sin after Sin, 1976’s Sad Wings of Destiny and their 1974 debut, Rocka Rolla, which gets slagged a lot for not being as “metal” as what followed, but offers plenty for fans of heavy ’70s rock. Songs like “Better by You, Better than Me” (a cover of Spooky Tooth), “Exciter,” “Invader,” the ultra-badass “Saints in Hell” and “Beyond the Realms of Death” are monuments of the soon to rise New Wave of British Heavy Metal, arriving two years before Iron Maiden released their first album and roughly concurrent to Motörhead‘s 1977 self-titled debut. Sabbath at this point were falling apart, releasing Never Say Die in ’78 before the big split with Ozzy, and while early metal seemed to be floundering all around them, Judas Priest would emerge to lead the style into the ’80s, to what many still regard as its peak era.

Not a bad legacy to wind up with. Of course, the mob went wild when Priest issued British Steel in 1980 (1978’s Killing Machine appeared between Stained Class and that album), and that helped propel the Birmingham five-piece to their iconic status, but a couple years earlier, when Stained Class hit, it did so with more of a workman feel. Comprised at that point of guitarists Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing, vocalist Rob Halford, bassist Ian Hill and drummer Les Binks, they were a band who knew what they were going for and who knew who they were even as pop consciousness shifted toward the rawer and less superficially pretentious punk of the day. I won’t take anything away from that either — if you ever hear me badmouth the Ramones, please alert the authorities that I’ve been kidnapped and replaced by a cyborg with shitty taste — but I think time has proved Judas Priest were right in sticking to their guns.

This is the last week-ending full-length of 2014, so I hope you enjoy.

Why Saturday and not Friday as usual? Well, The Patient Mrs. and I got home a little bit after midnight from about 72 hours straight of Xmas family time. It was delightful, and draining. A final two-hour trip north from Connecticut and by the time we got in, we didn’t even have energy enough to bring in presents from the car. It’ll happen today. Of course, not closing out the week before I went to bed wound up being the wrong choice since I was up until two and then up again from about 5:30 to 8 this morning — something just didn’t feel right — so I got mine in the end for veering from the routine even in this small way. Take that, me.

If you celebrated, I hope you had a good ol’ time. This week coming up is New Year’s, so things get even crazier. The Patient Mrs. and I will head back down to New Jersey in the middle of the week (Tuesday night, I believe) for more festivities and wahthaveyou, but I’ve also decided to close out 2014 with a bang around here. I’ve got stacks of CDs on my desk that have come in for review and it’s time to get them gone, so what I’ve decided to do is a series I’m going to call “Last Licks.” It’ll be 10 reviews per post (obviously each writeup will be relatively brief), Monday to Friday this coming week, rounding up stuff I want to get in before the year ends, and that’ll be that for 2014. Yeah, I know it’ll be 2015 by next Friday, but just roll with me on it. It’ll be good.

So that’s 50 reviews next week. Keep an eye out. Ha.

I also have some news to catch up on, so I’ll work that in where and when I’m able, and we’ll have the results of the Readers Poll — did you get your list in? — hopefully on the first, but maybe the second if Slevin is busy or tells me to screw off, which he’d be well within his rights to do. It’s been a close race the whole month and has been exciting to watch, and I’m thankful to everyone that’s taken part so far.

Thanks also to everyone who shared the lists that went up this week and the podcast as well. I know it wasn’t much for quantity of posts the last couple days, but I hope the quality made up for some of that.

Alright, I’m going to get more coffee and spend the remainder of this lovely day sitting on my ass. Enjoy the holiday weekend. Be safe, have fun, and we’ll see you back here Monday to close out 2014 in style.

Please check out the forum and radio stream.

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Friday Full-Length: Alice in Chains, Sap EP

Posted in Bootleg Theater on January 17th, 2014 by JJ Koczan

Alice in Chains, Sap (1992)

I don’t think I really need to go out of my way to justify including Sap as a heavy work. Sometimes I wonder what I would’ve thought of Alice in Chains had I been 15 or 20 years older than I was when they broke big, if the whole thing would’ve seemed as ridiculous to me then as a lot of modern alternative and pop hard rock seems to me now. Like Primus, of whom I’ve expressed a similar enduring affection, Alice in Chains hit me at just the right time. Dirt came out in Sept. 1992, and that would be the first of their albums that I heard. I was 11 years old.

Their post-reunion stuff hasn’t really interested me — I bought a used copy of Black Gives Way to Blue not so terribly long after it came out, but hardly listened to it. I heard part of one song from the one they did last year on the radio and it had that computerized wall of sound guitar anti-tone thing going for it, like Nickelback with a pitch-corrected Jerry Cantrell harmony. A futuristic nightmare in which something that once seemed so pure, on Facelift, Sap, Dirt, Jar of Flies, and the self-titled (which gets written off a lot but was actually really, really dark), comes back as unaware self-parody. Robots impersonating flowers. Food: Now with more flavor. Somewhere in a nameless city, Rowdy Roddy Piper puts on a pair of sunglasses.

But this. Beautiful. At least for the four songs of Sap proper, and then they get into the silly bonus track lest they be taken too seriously. I had this on earlier this week, turned up loud, was singing along to notes I used to be able to hit I guess before I turned 30 and finally hit puberty. My intention was to close out this week with something else, something a little more “the norm” as much as there is one, or at least something that’s not such an unrepentant downer, but this was more honest to where my head’s been at the last few days so there wasn’t really a choice. If it’s not your thing, or maybe it didn’t get into you when you were the right age, I’d be happy to hear about it in the comments.

Sorry about that whole “no posts” thing yesterday. I try to avoid that whenever I can, at least get something up. Yesterday The Patient Mrs. and I were on the road all day coming back from a mid-week trip south to Jersey. There’s a good chance this will come up again. I’ll try to give some notice or post what I can. I do my best.

Lots of news this week. Lots of videos. Not a lot of reviews. Here are the next five album reviews I’m going to write for this site. Ready? Weedpecker, Colour Haze (the Ewige Blumenkraft reissue), Conan, Mammatus and Papir. I really fucking hope it’s not a month before I get those done, but if it is, fuck it. That’s what I want to write about so that’s what I’m going to write about. I spend an awful lot of time feeling obligated and like I’m behind on shit. Well, I am behind, a lot, but when it comes to it, I do this to have a good time and write about music I enjoy, so if you’re not one of those next five reviews, I’m sorry but you’re gonna have to wait a little longer. Please know that your patience is appreciated.

I did a killer interview the other day with Rev. Jim Forrester about the Sixty Watt Shaman reunion. I’m not sure when I’ll have the time to transcribe it — Conan is next, then Alcest — but I’ll get there. I wish I had more time. Also money. Also abdominal definition. Also the ability to express emotions beyond frustration. It’s a long list. I wish and wish.

But life is what happens while you sit around and wish on bullshit you either can or can’t make real, so fuck it. I hope your week was incredible like the first time you heard Sabbath and it clicked, and I hope your weekend follows suit. If you stick around, I’ll have a new podcast coming either Sunday night or Monday morning, and there’s a lot of other silly nonsense to come as well next week other than whatever reviews I can get done. I hope you’ll hang out.

Thanks all, enjoy Sap, and please check out the forum and radio stream.

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Wino Wednesday: The Obsessed Documentary, 1994

Posted in Bootleg Theater on February 29th, 2012 by JJ Koczan

Happy Wino WednesdayThis has made the rounds online for a while now, but I thought that in light of how documentary-minded it’s getting around here lately (see here and here and here), I figured no time like the present to highlight the 1994 VHS documentary that Columbia Records put together ahead of their release of The Obsessed‘s The Church Within, which gave the record some context thanks to interview with the likes of Joe Lalli (Fugazi) and Lee Dorrian (Cathedral), among many others.

It’s something that you see all the time nowadays, from actual feature-length, professionally-done films to your basic camcorder webisodes taken in the studio and used by the label as promotional devices, but in 1994, The Obsessed Documentary ran 27 minutes and did much more than just hock the album. Rather, in that time, the already-cemented legacy of the band is explored and live and rehearsal footage is included as a bonus for fans.

Because it was uploaded to the YouTubes prior to that site’s lifting the band on clips over 10 minutes, it’s broken into three parts, all of which are included here, because, well, fuck it. If you’re gonna do something, do it right.

[UPDATE 03/22/12: Someone uploaded the whole thing in one stream, and in HD, so I went ahead and replaced the three players with this one.]

Happy Wino Wednesday:

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