TEMPLE OF THE DOG – TEMPLE OF THE DOG (1991)

MAD SEASON – ABOVE (1995)

March 14th, 1995, MAD SEASON released their album, Above, on Columbia Records. Mad Season was born out of various members’ struggles 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 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 embrace sobriety himself.

“I was in rehab in Minneapolis in 1994,” recalls McCready, “and I saw this kind of crusty old guy pull up to the place. He drove a Dodge Dart, and it had a bumper sticker that read, ‘What We Have Here Is A Failure To Give A Shit.’ Ha ha. I just thought, ‘This guy is awesome. I’ve got to meet him.’

“A couple of days later, I heard Bob Dylan playing in this one room. I thought, ‘Well, that’s interesting,’ because we weren’t supposed to play music. I went into the room and said, ‘Oh, cool.’ And it was Baker. He and I started talking about Bob Dylan. We struck up a friendship. When we got out of rehab, he was living in Minneapolis, and I just wanted to stay there for a while and not go back to Seattle.”

“When I eventually had to return to Seattle, I just said to Baker, ‘Hey, do you want to come back with me?’ I think he had nowhere to go in Minneapolis, so I just moved him to Seattle. I had called Layne from Minneapolis. He was receptive. When I got back, Layne was off the road, and Pearl Jam was off the road; there was Barrett from The Screaming Trees – I had always wanted to work with him because he’s a fantastic drummer – and I was like, ‘I’ve got these guys. Let’s try to do something. Let’s see what it is. Let’s jam and maybe do a record.’ It was more of a jam thing at first.”

Mad Season is a rare entity, a side project that, for many, eclipses the output of the member’s main bands at that time. Like the Temple Of The Dog record, Mad Season’s Above is a crystalline snapshot of an outrageously fertile time in rock. “It was a brief lightning bolt of music that lasted six months, tops, and then it was gone,” says McCready, referring to Mad Season’s short existence; “We did a lot of stuff in that brief period. Luckily, most of it was documented.”

The band entered Bad Animals Studio in Seattle, Washington, during the winter of 1994. Considering how quickly it was written and recorded, and the battles Staley, McCready, and Saunders were having with their sobriety, this album’s clarity of purpose and beauty is astounding. For many, it’s a high watermark of the 90s alternative rock oeuvre.

Mad Season allowed its protagonists to channel their hardships into something positive and meaningful. It also allowed each member to flex their songwriting muscles more freely than they might have had the opportunity to in their regular bands. “I was in a band with some very prolific songwriters, guys who know what they want and know how to get it,” McCready recalled, “For the first three Pearl Jam records, I didn’t write anything on them. After Mad Season, I started writing my own music for Pearl Jam and brought it in. Given To Fly came out of that, and so did Faithful – those were on Yield, which came after Mad Season. After we had made that record, I could draw a direct lineage in my growth in confidence as a songwriter. Mad Season changed my life in a million different ways.”

The album opener, “Wake Up”, sets the tone. Barrett Martin’s mastery of instruments in the idiophone family sees him create some inspired, lush atmospherics on vibraphone and marimba; the pulse for this bed is his perfectly weighted, hushed drums that support McCready’s distant, vibe-drenched guitar. Staley is commanding. His immediately distinctive voice sounds rich and earthy.

“X-Ray Mind” opens with a rolling drum pattern before locking into an almighty blues groove. Mad Season’s musical approach was more blues-influenced than Alice In Chains’ output, but Layne’s voice flourished equally in both settings. His powerful, world-weary high baritone lends itself to the rustic nature of the Mad Season material with stunning effect.

“River of Deceit” begins with a Hendrix/Stevie Ray Vaughan-inspired guitar melody from McCready. Layne Staley’s understated, churning introspection perfectly complements the slow, bluesy vamps of Martin, Saunders, and McCready. In light of Staley’s grim end, his haunting, echoing cries of “My pain is self-chosen” are harrowing.

“I’m Above” is our first introduction to honorary fifth member Mark Lanegan. In the verses, Lanagan and Staley’s voices intertwine with fractured symmetry, adding weight and depth to the lyrics with their “old before their years” baritones. For the pre-chorus, the song suddenly shifts gears, with Staley pushing his voice to the limit, sounding as if his skeleton is trying to climb from his mouth as he delivers each line.

“Artificial Red” finds Staley channelling his inner bluesman as McCready becomes a conduit for the spirits of Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix. It is a staggering blues tune shorn of any trite, hackneyed themes that permeate that genre. Barrett Martin and John Baker Saunders’ rhythm section is pitch-perfect and intently sympathetic, allowing Staley and McCready to soar.

The dark and brooding “Lifeless Dead” sees another bone-chilling performance from Staley. In a lyric that would eerily echo his loss just one year later with the passing of his girlfriend, Demri Parrott, Staley intones, “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’”. Mike McCready recalls the musical inspiration for the song’s massive guitar hooks. “I was way into Jimmy Page at the time, so I was trying to write a riff-type thing in that vein. The intro was maybe more Pink Floyd, but I did use the Gibson double-neck SG, so the vibe is very Pagey.”

“I Don’t Know Anything” is a juggernaut powered by an infectious guitar riff written by Staley. “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. Skerik’s impassioned saxophone takes the song to new heights.

All band members are in top form throughout. Mike McCready is playing with the shackles off, tapping into the fire his guitar playing possessed during the Ten and Vs era before Eddie Vedder’s more claustrophobic writing dominated Pearl Jam’s albums, curtailing McCready’s explosive, heartfelt histrionics.

Barrett Martin shines, lending world music-like percussion and a Bonham-esque thump on drums, upright bass, marimba, cello, and vibes. John Baker Saunders’ melodic, liquid bass lines pulse underneath as Staley leads from the front with passionate, charged vocal performances.

The instrumental “November Hotel” shimmers with an atmospheric haze. Martin’s percussion is luminescent, and his ability to create cinematic soundscapes is unmatched. Soon, he throws the hammer down, launching the band into a psychedelic workout that sounds in tone like the evil stepbrother to Hendrix’s “Third Stone From The Sun.”

The gentle drone of “All Alone” closes the album. Layne sounds ethereal and distant but direct and honest as he delivers the song’s only lyric, “We’re All Alone.”

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. The album 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.”

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. Layne Staley, who had almost entirely retreated from music and public life, died in 2002. Above is 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.

In rock n roll’s long and storied history, a “supergroup” side project rarely threatens to eclipse the brilliance of the members “regular” bands. By the time Above was released in 1995, each member of Mad Season had already produced era-defining masterworks with Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains and Screaming Trees. But Above stands tall alongside anything they or the ’90s had to offer.

It’s dark, harrowing, menacing, uplifting, inspiring, bright and beautiful—a true journey to the heart of the human condition. In 2013, Mike McCready said, “I listened to it all the way through probably two times in the sixteen years since it came out. I have heard River Of Deceit on the radio since then. But I haven’t listened to the album because, for me, it’s very sad. Baker and Layne both died, so there’s a sadness that hangs over the entire record; I wasn’t willing to live that again. The couple of times I listened to it was tough.”

“When I heard it again, it was freeing and sad. I cried, laughed, and felt proud. I felt a real mixture of emotions that I’d never had with any other music I’d done because two of the guys passed away, and I miss them.”

Essential…!