Above – Mad Season

Release Year: 1995

Rating: 8.5/10

Sometimes an artist gets the urge to do something different that doesn’t necessarily fit in with their established work. This is where side bands come in. Some are amazing. Others are questionable. Layne Staley and members of Pearl Jam and Screaming Trees felt the urge and formed the supergroup Mad Season in 1994. Supergroups pose their own problems, like sounding too much like their main bands. Mad Season ensured this wasn’t an issue with their stellar, diverse debut album Above.

What makes this album remarkable during an era where grunge infiltrated everything is its diversity. Some results are better than others, but this project allowed everyone involved to play with different genres. We hear this right from the beginning with “Wake Up.” It starts with a low, muted bass like its rumbling in your stomach. The rest of the music slowly builds up with a jazzy vibe. As the song gets more intense, the guitar grows bluesy, especially the solo that adds fire to the song. Layne’s vocals are outstanding here. He switches between a haunting croon to intense screaming. Surprisingly, the result is beautiful.

River of Deceit” has a country/folk sound with the prominent acoustic guitar taking over the track. The song is mellow with Layne singing sweetly, but it has some dark connotations. One of the heaviest lines is “My pain is self chosen,” which can be linked to his struggle with drugs. The song is inspired by his personal life and The Prophet by Khalil Graban. It shows how fragile Layne could be at times. “Long Gone Day” is one of the odder moments on the album. The opening bongos, twinkling music, and occasional saxophone makes it sound like a lounge song from the 70s. As the song goes on, the band continues to mix different genres and sounds making it hard to pinpoint. It’s unexpected, even on this album, but it stands out from the other tracks for an unexpected, great song.

The band may play around with sound on the album, but there are more straightforward rock tracks as well. Several of the songs stem from psychedelic rock, like the smug “I’m Above.” Everything here is louder, heavier, and more intense than the previous songs. The most notable element is the thick guitar riff reminiscent of Black Sabbath. “Lifeless Dead” has a similar mood with dirty fuzzy guitars blasting throughout the song. Again, it has that 70’s rock vibe; everything is bigger and better. The dizzying “I Don’t Know Anything” follows a similar vibe as the aforementioned tracks. What makes this song different from the others are Layne’s trance-like vocals and the mechanical pounding near the end. All of these songs are heavy and aggressive enough to fit in on an Alice in Chains record. It serves as a break from the experimentation on the record. It also lets listeners know there were no plans for abandoning their roots.

The last two songs, “November Hotel” and “All Alone,” are atmospheric experiences. The former is completely instrumental. It has soft, mellow music with thumping percussion adding a rumbling beat. This is broken up with ambient noises that sound like a cold wind blowing. Midway through everything explodes and turns into a psychedelic jam session. It constantly shifts moods and sounds before coming back to its mellow music. It’s a strange musical roller coaster. “All Alone” has very few vocals and what sounds like a pulsing organ. The light, ethereal structure of the song and Layne crooning “We’re all alone” makes it sound like an otherworldly hymn. It’s a fitting, yet somber way to end the album.

Above is a great record because of its diversity. These are all musicians known for their work in grunge music. This band gave them the opportunity to go outside of their comfort zone and do something else. And it showed they could do more than play fuzzy guitars and scream. The integration of blues, jazz, and psychedelic rock make for an album that’s exciting, but mellow. There are times when they let aggression through, but for the most part, it’s a slower, emotional record. Staley also shows immense talent both as a songwriter and a vocalist. Though his work has seen more appreciation over the years, he still seems to be overshadowed by a certain grunge artist. The album is a gem from the 90s you should check out, especially if you’re an Alice in Chains fan.

One Hot Minute – Red Hot Chili Peppers

Release Year: 1995

Rating: 7/10

This album is often considered the black sheep in the Chili Peppers’ catalog. A change in sound, guitarist, and lack of sales made this their least successful album. Some call it their worst so far. But is it really that bad? Is it possible the critics were wrong or that fans were too harsh on Dave Navarro’s metal influenced guitar style? Wanting to find out for myself, I delved into the shaky album and found out it was more enjoyable than I expected it to be.

After the success of the band’s previous LP Blood Sugar Sex Magik, guitarist John Frusciante became frustrated with their new found fame and quit the band. The Chili Peppers picked Dave Navarro to fill his shoes, which in turned changed the band’s sound. A lot of the songs are more on the heavy metal side, such as “Deep Kick” and the title track. While it works well on “Shallow Be They Game,” where Navarro’s wild riffs are mixed with the band’s original funky style, often his playing comes across as noisy and rough for no reason. On “Coffee Shop” the guitars are rough and dirty, but so loud it washes everything out. “Deep Kick” features wild, blazing guitar solos from Navarro that try to showcase his talent, but come off as trying too hard and too dull. Though he remains a talented musician, he just wasn’t a good fit for the band.

Another reason the album is cited as their worst is how disjointed everything sounds and it’s true. The opening track “Warped” sounds promising with in your face guitars and high energy punk rock, but the vocals are so distracting. Kiedis’ voice is looped over itself and has an echo effect that makes him sound like he’s under water. It makes everything confusing and it’s too difficult to ignore. “One Big Mob” is another track that starts off well with spastic energy and a return to Kiedis’ rapping that makes listeners think of their earlier material. Even though the chorus of “One big mob/aw yea aw yea” sounds like it’s ripped from a bad hip hop song, it was still good until the bridge where everything gets psychedelic. The music slows down, the vocals get soft, and everything sounds trippy before returning to the hard sound. It’s so unexpected and doesn’t work with the track. Most of the songs on the LP continue in this fashion: the songs start off strong, but then abruptly change in another direction, which isn’t a good fit. This same problem is found on HIM’s Venus Doom.

While those opening songs spelled bad things for the album, there are actually a number of good tracks. Few of them can be considered as strong or stronger than anything they’ve done before or since, but it’s not all bad for the LP. The somber “My Friends,” which address Kiedis’ concerns with himself at the time, is a mellow number that finds the singer sounding vulnerable and wounded. The opening line sets the depressed and defeated tone of the song: “My friends are so depressed/I feel the question of your loneliness.” Oddly enough, some of the music reminded me of their later track “Scar Tissue,” which is better than this one in my opinion. “Walkabout” is a return to the funktastic sound the band so cherishes. While the lyrics aren’t remarkable, the music has Flea’s insane bass slapping dripping all over it making for an irresistible groove. It’s the music that keeps your attention throughout the whole song. “Tearjerker” is a sweet ballad about the death of Kurt Cobain, while “Transcending” is a return to the psychedelic sound. The music is soft and puts you at ease; it definitely has the “free love” vibe. Midway through the mood is interrupted by sludgy hard rock, but it’s not too distracting.

One downfall of the album is Kiedis himself. During this time, he resumed his previous drug habit he kicked causing the songwriting to slow down. You can also tell he’s not on point with his vocals. Plenty of the songs featured weird gang vocals, like “Deep Kick,” where everyone sounds wasted, and it seems like it was an attempt to cover up Kiedis’ shortcomings. There are moments when his voice shines, like on “Aeroplane,” but there are other times where his voice isn’t as strong as it usually is. His songwriting took a hit too. Whereas the previous album was full of witty retorts and clever wordplay, the lyrics here are forgettable. None stick out as being clever or cheeky.

It’s definitely not the best Chili Peppers’ album, but it’s not as terrible as history has made it out to be. Yes, Dave Navarro was not a good fit for the band and yes, a lot of the music is disjointed and disorienting, but there are actually a number of songs that aren’t bad. Oddly enough, these are the ones that play to the band’s funk side, but they’re still good nonetheless. Most of the songs suffered from starting out strong and then abruptly changing midway through. The album has a lot of problems sure, but that doesn’t mean there’s no enjoyment to be had from it.

Astro- Creep 2000: Songs of Love, Destruction and Other Synthetic Illusions of the Electric Head – White Zombie

Release Year: 1995

Rating: 8/10

White Zombie and its figurehead Rob Zombie, are known for their love of horror movies and generous use of samples. That didn’t change on their fourth and final album. While their earlier efforts focused on their psychedelic, groove metal side, the band takes things in a darker direction here. Elements of their previous sound aren’t totally abandoned, but heavy music and disturbing lyrics take over. Not only is their new direction apparent, but Zombie’s future solo career can also be heard.

Things start off good and creepy on “Electric Head Pt 1 (The Agony).” An ominous creepy sample from the movie The Curse of Frankenstein sets the mood, followed by haunting organ music that sounds like it was made for an old black and white horror film. It amps up the unsettling vibe before the music speeds up. Afterward, everything sounds gritty and dirty, like it’s being dragged through the mud. It still has a really great to mood to, similar to their earlier songs. It’s a great way to start the record and serves as a reminder why the band were so unique.

Super Charger Heaven” speeds things up with the rapid, raw music full of energy. Rob Zombie sounds downright evil as he spits lyrics like “Yeah inbreed the witches /and worship the dogs/Deformed and fuck’n lazy/Damn yourself and choke” and that’s only the beginning of the supernatural references. There’s even some unsettling chanting by the end that completes the horrific feel. Zombie really shows off his witty, visual side with the lyrics painting weird and odd images. “Creature of the Wheel” comes off really slow and heavy. Everything sounds de-tuned, even Zombie’s vocals as he sings in almost a growl. The whole things comes off really dirty and rough. The use of samples here is no different than the others, except that it’s unnerving. Something about the way the crowd drones “Nooo” when asked “does he have the marks?” gets under your skin.

Electric Head Pt 2 (Ecstasy)” is punchier than its counterpart. The music here is energetic and even has a hint of their previous funk/groove infused sound. As soon as you hear it, you can’t help but start moving. Zombie’s future solo career comes through the most on this track. Everything from the opening line “I just say up yours, baby” to the pace of the music, and even the way he sings “Yeeeaah” is reminiscent of what he would do later on. Still, it manages to be catchy and is one of their best songs. “I Zombie” isn’t hard to remember thanks to the constant use of the line “I Zombie.” The track deceives the listener into a peaceful mood with a choir harmonizing until it’s interrupted by a blood curdling scream. It’s aggressive and comes right at you without stopping. It delves right back into their psychedelic realm making this one trippy ass ride for the listener.

Hands down the best track on the album is “More Human than Human.” The song just kick ass, plain and simple. It finds the band using a bit of electronic for the throbbing riff that opens the song. The peeling guitar then shreds through fierce and is on fire. Zombie gets creative with the lyrics making up words like “psycholic” to describe this creature. There’s even a line that mentions “love American style,” which may be a reference to the show of the same name. Everything about it is awesome and really catchy. The oddly titled “Grease Paint and Monkey Brain” starts off sounding demented before the music slows down into a trance like state. This is probably the heaviest song on the record, which makes it a bit too slow at times. Still, the lyrics that equate death with a fucked up version of Las Vegas keeps your attention all the way through.

White Zombie were one of the most exciting, crazy, freaked out, and creative metal bands of the 90s. Though they disbanded right when they were hitting their stride, they at least went out with a bang on this LP. It left fans with some kick ass hits and gave Rob Zombie the basis for his successful solo career, which he’s still finding time for today when he’s not directing questionable horror movies. The music is heavy, the lyrics are creepy, and as always with White Zombie, there’s a bit of a groove to get your ass moving. It’s a great farewell from an awesome band.


Tragic Kingdom- No Doubt

No_Doubt_-_Tragic_KingdomRelease Year: 1995

Rating: 8/10

Like several albums from the 90s, this is one everyone had to have. It was so popular it jump started No Doubt’s move into the mainstream. It’s a classic and remains one of their best selling albums. Every song may not be amazing, but there are a lot of great ones here. Also, it shows the band’s unique way of making music. They jump from their typical ska sound to a jazz vibe all within a few tracks. This album gave us the classic No Doubt everybody loved and missed when Gwen Stefani went solo.

I’m not going to lie, I never really heard the entire album before. I know the singles, but that’s about it. I do remember my mom had it, but I never bothered to listen to the whole thing until now. I’m glad I did. While I didn’t fall in love with the album, I do think a number of the songs on here are awesome with one being “Spiderwebs.” As soon as it begins we can hear the band’s classic ska feel shining through, but it also mixes this with rock and a little bit of pop. Though the music is bouncy and makes you want to jump around the room, the song itself isn’t as cheerful; it’s about a woman being pestered by a guy who won’t leave her alone. But it doesn’t stop it from being a great song and one that fans still love today.

Excuse Me Mr” is a really interesting song because it mixes several different genres within the span of three minutes. It begins with frantic, energetic music inspired by punk rock. As the energetic track goes on you hear a little bit of the keyboard, which that has a hint of 80s synth. Just when you think you have the song figured out the bridge comes in and completely changes the sound. Suddenly, it turns into this big band sound from the Jazz era before in launches back into the frantic punk sound. It’s really unexpected, but the band pulls it off flawlessly. “Just A Girl” has a great guitar riff that mixes rock with synth to make the unique sound. The music is pretty much rock mixed in with new wave, especially when we get to the bridge. The song is also great because it explores female stereotypes of being weak and depending on a man. Just hearing her sing things like “I’m just a girl/all pretty and petite/so don’t let me have any rights” sounds so ridiculous, but it’s probably the point of the track.

“Sixteen” is a cool, aggressive track with an in-your-face bass line and an abundance of energy. This tracks finds the group going back to their ska/punk roots, but things get interesting during the bridge. Here, rather than being frantic, the mood grows somber as classic music takes over only to be destroyed by a chaotic guitar solo. It’s one of the more upbeat numbers on the album that is sure to get you moving. The closing track “Tragic Kingdom” is another place where the band mixes classical with ska. There’s definitely a more dramatic sound here with the slow, hypnotizing music. There are even times when it sounds whimsical. As the song comes to a close the music keeps swelling, getting more chaotic to the point where it sounds like a demented circus performance. It’s one of the odder tracks, but still awesome.

While there are some filler tracks like “World Go Round” and “Happy Now,” part of what makes this album so great is the mash up of different genres. “Hey You” presents a psychedelic vibe similar to The Doors and “You Can Do It” is a pure disco song from start to finish. From the funk driven guitar to the hand claps, the fun track sounds like it was ripped from the 70s. Funk makes a return in “Different People” with a splash of an R&B groove. One of the best songs,“The Climb,” has this underground jazz singer vibe to it. When listening to it you can picture Ms. Stefani in a glamorous dress singing in a smoke filled club in black and white, of course. A dash of soul is also found thanks to the horns that come in during the bridge. All these different sounds on the record show that the band were never afraid to change up their sound and that ska wasn’t the only thing they knew how to replicate well.

One thing I noticed about the album is it deals a lot with being true to yourself and messy breakups. It actually feels like the second half is only about break ups. Of course the track that best exemplifies this is “Don’t Speak.” It’s somber, heartbreaking, and the ultimate break up theme. This is where No Doubt gets light and slow. Even when there are moments when the music gets dramatic, it still manages to keep the sad mood. “Sunday Morning” also deals with breaking off a relationship and “End It On This” seems to be about knowing when it’s over and ending before anyone gets seriously hurt. It’s no surprise that this takes over since Gwen was actually breaking up with her boyfriend of seven years, who was also in the band. That had to be torture. I don’t see how she can perform on stage with him for so many years.

Overall, the album gets 8/10. It’s a really great record that’s still awesome today. While not every song is perfect, there are a number of tracks to fall in love with. So many of the songs show the band’s creativity when it came to making their unique sound. Sure, they knew how to do ska, but here they also experiment with classical music, jazz, and even disco. Though there’s a strong break-up theme running throughout the record, it’s still pretty fun and is definitely one of the most notable releases of the 90s.


Insomniac-Green Day

 Green_Day_-_Insomniac_coverRelease Year: 1995

Rating: 9/10

The 1995 album by Green Day divided some fans and critics with some claiming it strays far from their predecessor (Dookie) and others saying nothing has changed since then. When you really take the time to listen to the album and look at the lyrics, you’ll see this is actually a pretty great record and this is where Green Day really matured as song writers, with the songs straying away from boredom, masturbation, and getting high and heading more towards the lives of losers, burn outs, and drug addicts (and they don’t paint a pretty picture). Lyrically, this is my favorite Green Day album.

This album is definitely darker and heavier than their previous effort as it explores themes of isolation, paranoia, self-loathing, and deprivation. You can hear the darker sound on the opening track “Armatage Shanks.” The heavy hitting drums that introduce the track sound like they can hit you in the gut. You can hear all the energy from the previous album, but the mood of hopelessness comes at full force when Billie sings “Stranded lost inside myself/ my own worst friend/My own closest enemy.” This can not only be heard in the lyrics, but in the music as well. The guitars are harsher, dirtier and more abrasive on this record. The drums are heavier too, with them thudding and plowing through the song. The bass riffs are great as well; some of the most memorable ones come from this album.

The darkness of this album may not be apparent at first because the music is very uptempo and fast. But when you look at the lyrics you realize the dark topics the band is dealing with here. The whole album deals with losers who are unemployed, mooch off of others, are hooked on drugs, and hate everyone. It ties in very well with the album title. “Brat” is a prime example of these themes. In a nutshell, the song is about a kid who is waiting for his parents to die, so he can get their inheritance. In other words, he doesn’t want to get a job. The hopeless tone comes back with the line “Nothing good can last.” It’s a song filled with dark humor and the band’s classic punk energy.

“Geek Stink Breath” is another song that deals with someone giving up and going on the destructive path of drugs. Not only is there a great guitar riff, the gruesome lyrics about “picking scabs off my face” are a great description about how drugs fuck you up. “Tight Wad Hill” is another song dealing with drugs and the people who give themselves over to them. Lyrics like “Drugstore hooligan, another white trash mannequin/On display to rot up the hill” paint a part of town that you never want to go to. To emphasize the drug subject, the music itself is frantic like a junkie looking for his next fix. It’s clear that the characters in these songs are not kicking back with some hash; they’re hooked on the harder stuff.

With the theme of drug addicts and deadbeats, one can think of this as a continuation of Dookie. The characters of the songs have the same attitudes as they did on the previous album: laziness, snottiness, being a brat, and hating others. But these characters have ended up on skid row because they don’t want to do anything or let anyone into their lives. It’s most likely unintentional that the albums link up this way, but it’s really cool that they do. It’s this ongoing theme that makes this album great. Also, the progression from the previous album to this one can also describe what Billie was going through at the time.

The previous year the band exploded with great success and everyone wanted a piece of them. But along with that came people calling them sell outs and them being shunned from Gilman street where they got their start. The negativity and dejection found here could easily stem from Billie’s experience with fame. One song that seems to relate directly from the band’s life is “86.” The lyrics deal with how sometimes you can’t go home again; you’re unwanted and unwelcomed. Lyrics like “What brings you around/did you lose something the last time you were here?” and “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass” seems to allude to their experience with Gilman street and how after they signed with a major label, they were banned from the place. The subject matter here makes the song kind of somber and hopeless; if you can’t go home, where can you go?

The songs themselves are awesome and catchy like always. Some of the great tracks on this album are “Brainstew/Jaded,” which has the great drudging, slow riff and descriptive, gruesome lyrics such as “My eyes feel like they’re gonna bleed/Dried up and bulging out my skull.” Every unpleasant thing Billie talks about you can picture perfectly in your head. There’s also one of the best guitar riffs here. It’s slow and thumping; it also has this dark, harsh sound to it. All of it put together sounds like someone who is on the edge of losing control. Another great song is “Panic Song,” which has a racing, almost sweating bass riff that opens the song. “Walking Contradiction” is another great song that shows off how clever Green Day is at writing. As you may guess from the song title, the entire song is filled with contradictions. The chorus screams “I have no belief/but I believe I’m a walking contradiction/and I ain’t got no rights.” Not only is it witty, it’s catchy as hell too.

Overall this album gets 9/10. Despite this album being much darker than their previous effort, it’s still full of great, catchy songs the kind that Green Day is known for. This album also sees the band grow up a little bit. The songs here deal with darker topics and move away from things like boredom and masturbation. They improve as song writers and musicians and prove that they are a band that is comprised of immense talent. If you passed up this album or don’t know much about it, sit down and give it a listen. If the lyrics don’t get you then the dirty, aggressive music will.