March 14th, 1995, Mad Season released their one and only album Above through Columbia Records. The band consisted of Alice In Chains Layne Staley, Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, Screaming Tree’s Barrett Martin and John Baker Saunders who became bassist in The Walkabouts after the release of Above.
Guests include Screaming Trees vocalist Mark Lanegan who contributed vocals and writing credit to the album on the songs “I’m Above” and “Long Gone Day”. Skerik of Tuatara, Critters Buggin’ and Les Claypool’s solo band plays saxophone on “Long Gone Day”
Mad Season was born out of various members struggle with addiction. During the recording of Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy in 1993, Mike McCready entered rehab in Minneapolis, Minnesota. There he met John Baker Saunders. In 1994, when the two returned to Seattle, they formed Mad Season as a side project with Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin. Immediately the trio set up rehearsal time together and began writing material.
McCready brought in friend and Alice in Chains frontman Layne Staley to round out the line-up, hoping that being around sober musicians would push Staley to get himself sober.
The album was recorded in 1994 at Bad Animals Studio in Seattle, Washington. The band worked with producer Brett Eliason who had previously worked with McCready as Pearl Jam’s sound engineer. Eliason also mixed the album.
The result of this short lived collaboration is the album Above. Considering the time frame involved and the battles Staley, McCready and Saunders were having with their addictions and sobriety. The clarity of purpose and beauty of this album is astounding. For many it’s a high watermark of the 90s alternative rock oeuver.
Like another short lived band of the era, Temple Of The Dog. Mad Season was an outlet for its protagonists to channel their hardships into something positive and meaningful.
River of Deceit was the first single released from the album. The song opens with a Hendrix/Stevie Ray Vaughan inspired guitar motief from McCready followed by a understated lyric and melody from Staley, filled with churning introspection and slow, bluesy vamps. In light of Staley’s grim end, his haunting, echoing cries of “Down, oh Down. My pain is self-chosen.” are harrowing.
I’m Above is the first introduction we have to honorary fifth member Mark Lanegan. Lanagan and Staley’s voices intertwine with fractured symmetry in the verses. Both adding weight and depth to the lyrics with their “old before their years”, world weary baritones. For the pre-chorus, the song suddenly shifts gears, with Staley pushing his voice to the limit, sounding as if his own skeleton is trying to climb from his mouth as he delivers each line.
The dark and brooding Lifeless Dead sees another bone chilling performance from Staley. In a lyric that would eerily echo his own loss just one year later with the passing of his girlfriend Demri Parrott “And although he’d not accept, She was gone and so he wept, Then a demon came to him, “You must know, I’m gonna win”
Long Gone Day sees Mark Lanegan return for a tour de force. Barrett Martin sets the scene with exotic percussion as Staley and Lanegan languidly intone a bleak tale of searching for redemption during the fall. The song is taken to new heights by Skerik’s impassioned saxophone.
All band members are in top form here. Mike McCready is playing with the shackles off. Back to the fire he possessed in his guitar playing circa Ten and Vs before the more claustrophobic writing of Eddie Vedder dominated Pearl Jam’s albums and curtailed McCready somewhat.
Barrett Martin shines, lending world music like percussion and Bonham-esque thump on drums as well as adding upright bass, marimba, cello and vibes to proceedings. John Baker Saunders melodic, liquid bass lines pulse underneath and Staley leads from the front with a typically emotive and charged vocal performance.
McCready said of Mad Season, “We did all the Mad Season music in about seven days. It took Layne just a few more days to finish his vocals, which was intense since we only rehearsed twice and did four shows. So this has been the most spontaneous thing I’ve ever been involved in. This was done even quicker than Temple of the Dog which took about four weeks. With Mad Season we just went in and started jamming on tunes and everybody had ideas and it just happened within three or four days.”
The album’s gloomy, black and white cover art featuring a couple tongue-kissing was illustrated by Staley. The drawing was based upon a photograph of Staley and his girlfriend Demri Parrott.
MAD SEASON – ABOVE After the release of Mad Season, McCready returned to Pearl Jam and resumed touring and recording. Martin and Lanegan resumed their work in Screaming Trees. Baker started working with bands in Seattle including the Walkabouts and Staley returned to Alice in Chains to record one last album and their tantalizing appearance on MTV Unplugged.
Before the 1990s came to a close, John Baker Saunders died in his home of a drug overdose. And Layne Staley followed him in 2002.
Above stands as a look inside the souls of four gifted artists at a crossroads in their lives. Barrett Martin and Mike McCready lived to fight another day. Sadly John Baker Saunders and Layne Staley weren’t so lucky.
Each member of Mad Season had already produced era defining masterworks with their respective bands by the time Above was released in 1995.
In the history of rock n roll, it’s not often a “supergroup” side project threatens to eclipse the brilliance of the members own bands but Above stands tall alongside anything the 90s had to offer.