Words By: Gerrod Harris
Release Date: August 28th, 2015, via Monkeywrench Records
Mad Season showed much promise back in the 90’s due to their status of one of the few super groups to emerge from the Seattle grunge scene. Formed in 1994 by Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, Alice And Chains frontman Layne Staley, Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin, and Walkabout bassist John Baker Saunders, the band would release their debut, and sole record, Above, in 1995. Unfortunately, the band did little more as they broke up before their second album was completed and talk of a reunion was silenced by Staley’s untimely death in 2002. Despite this, they were a band not to be discounted due to their premature ending. Earlier this year, Mad Season reunited for one show with the help of the Seattle Symphony and an all-star cast, including Chris Cornell, Duff McKagen, and Jeff Angell, to name a few. Sonic Evolution, the professionally mastered recording of the concert, was released through Pearl Jam’s own label, Monkeywrench Records, and sold through various online outlets (Amazon and the Pearl Jam website) with profits from album sales going to the Seattle Symphony and Vitalogy Foundation.
The show opens with the symphonic rock song, “Waking The Horizons”,a beautifully composed piece by McCready, written for the purpose of this show. The song features masterfully entertained parts between members of the symphony as well as McCready’s crisp electric guitar (including a very tasteful guitar solo), and frequently shifts moods from haunting to triumphant. Cornell joins the band as they play Mad Season’s “Long Gone Day” in which rock and classical go hand in hand as violins and cellos reinforce guitar and bass lines, horns provide additional harmonies and a percussion section adds extra force to the songs, while a choir quietly backs Cornell’s voice. It isn’t until “River Of Deceit” that we hear the true potential growth that simple grunge songs can experience as they are aided by an orchestra. “River Of Deceit” is driven forward as a beautiful melody of Cornell’s raw vocals, McCready’s flawless guitar licks, and explodes during the chorus with a flurry of strings and horns, making for a wonderful rendition of Mad Season’s biggest hit, and a definite highlight of their set. The horns grow to monumental proportions during the next song, “I Don’t Know Anything” as they mimic the dissonant, grungy guitar riff, and with the combination of the strings, it resembles Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”. Somehow in the very disjointed guitar solo section, where it seems everything is playing out of time except for McCready as he shreds, they all manage to stay completely intact, a difficult enough feat when working with a band of four musicians, let alone a rock band plus a symphony. Kim Virant takes the mic from Cornell for the sorrowful ballad “Wake Up” and does an excellent job capturing the despair in Staley’s lyrics. Jeff Angell, of The Missionary Position and, more recently, The Walking Papers, leads the band through the highly bluesy “Lifeless Dead”, a guitar heavy track with a very modern feel.
For two songs, a near complete Temple Of The Dog reunion took place. Joined onstage by Matt Cameron (of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam), Jeff Ament , and Stone Gossard (both of Pearl Jam), Cornell led the group, minus Eddie Vedder, through “Call Me A Dog” and “Reach Down”. The songs are performed without the symphony, and are simply amazing. They certainly add a heavier edge which contrasts to the spacious and melancholic textures of Mad Season’s compositions such as “River Of Deceit”, “Wake Up”, and “All Alone”. The smooth ballad, “Call Me A Dog”, was performed without a hitch and with as much conviction as when it was first released on their self –titled in 1991. The guitar solos and pure sludge which were key to the grunge genre is ever present on the bombastic “Reach Down”. This two song reunion, while short lived, is incredible, and will leave anyone wishing for a Temple Of The Dog reunion tour, complete with Vedder.
Sonic Evolution is a treasure which may have slipped under the radar. I stumbled on it quite by accident, and I consider myself a big fan of the grunge genre, so it does not surprise me that it would have an understated release, which is quite unfortunate really, because the performance put on by Mad Season and friends, Temple Of The Dog, and the Seattle Symphony is brilliant. I cannot praise this record enough; it is one of the best live albums I have heard. Symphonies and rock n’roll, much to the surprise of many, go together very well, and it is in their rarity that makes them all that much more special. All three vocalists, Cornell, Virant, and Angell, do a phenomenal job of bringing Staley’s vocal parts, and lyrics to life, each pumping a very raw sense of emotion into their performance and McCready, while he continues to be an underrated force, once again proves to be one of the best and most soulful guitarists to emerge from the Seattle scene. As a fitting end to the show, Mad Season performed “All Alone”, a nearly instrumental, psychedelic soundscape with Staley’s voice electronically sampled over their performance, ensuring that the reunion was not without an emotional tribute to the late frontman. Sonic Evolution is solid evidence that the grunge and, even larger, the alternative scene (the two are almost one in the same) was not a phase which pop culture merely outgrew, but rather a genre that has matured into an era of sophistication. While as a whole it may not draw the same immense popularity as it once did, many of the biggest names of the 90’s are still creating new, worthwhile music and Sonic Evolution continues a rich and lasting legacy two decades onward.
1: Waking The Horizon
2: Long Gone Day
3: River Of Deceit
4: I Don’t Know Anything
5: Wake Up
6: Lifeless Dead
7: I’m Above
8: Call Me A Dog
9: Reach Down
10: All Alone
Watch Some Fan Footage of the Temple Of A Dog Reunion: