Above by Mad Season
The Seattle supergroup Mad Season released one of the most beautiful records amidst the most chaotic times.
A brief grunge timeline… just as a refresher…
September 1991 - Nirvana releases Nevermind
February 4, 1992 - Alice in Chains release Sap (EP)
February 29, 1992 - Badmotorfinger peaks at 39 on the Billboard charts.
September 8, 1992 - Screaming Trees release Sweet Oblivion
September 29, 1992 - Alice in Chains released Dirt, and Stone Temple Pilots released Core on the same day.
Late 1992 - Pearl Jam Ten (released August 1991 before Nevermind) charts on the US Billboard 200, reaching number 2.
October 19, 1993 - Pearl Jam release Vs. and set sales records.
1994 Pearl Jam is trying to record Vitalogy
This is when Pearl Jam almost breaks up under the strain of writing this record. Pearl Jam lore has it that it’s the first record where Eddie Vedder started making final decisions, and Stone Gossard started yielding his role as mediator and leader. Mike McCready, Pearl Jam’s guitar virtuoso, checked into rehab in Minnesota for alcohol and cocaine. There, he met bass player John Baker Saunders. When they returned to Seattle, they formed a side band, eventually called Mad Season. Over about a week to ten days, they wrote all the music.
It’s 1995. In February, I turned 16 and started driving. Grunge music wasn’t the same new, exciting thing it was a few years earlier. The Pumpkins were putting out Mellon Collie. Radiohead was on the radio with “Fake Plastic Trees.” Red Hot Chili Peppers were everywhere with the guitarist from Jane’s Addiction instead of John Frusciante, singing about “Aeroplanes.” No Doubt was launching a pop-ska revolution on rock and pop radio. Silver Chair put out maybe the most grunge record of the year, while Dave Grohl released his first Foos record.
And a collection of musicians from Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Screaming Trees release one of the classic and overlooked records to come out of the whole era.
Entertainment Weekly didn’t like it very much.
This Seattle supersession unites moonlighting Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, and Screaming Trees members in the cause of lugubrious metal lethargy. A sax solo and zooming guitars provide momentary relief, but most Mad Season sludge is unbearably immobile. It’s big trouble when one of the most upbeat songs is called ”Lifeless Dead.”
I think the tale of the tape might show that this review was pretty off base. You win some, you lose some. Considering how the Layne Staley story ends, it feels pretty lucky to have this record. If Chuck Eddy had only known then what we know now, he might have had a different headspace for this record.
Layne Staley put up some incredible performances as part of Alice in Chains. However, he never sounded better, or more raw than he did singing his beautiful poetry on Above. Maybe on the Unplugged performance, but that’s instructive more than an indictment of Above.
I can remember hearing the opening notes of “Wake Up” when I first started listening to this CD. You hear the moody, bluesy bass line before the vibes come in. Nobody is in a rush to finish this 7:36 lament. Layne and Barrett Martin’s drums enter softly and subtly. By the time this song hits its peak, you can almost hear the rehearsals as Layne Staley turned his beautiful voice into an instrument just singing yeah and oh with soul and gusto.
“River of Deceit” was the radio hit off of Above. It had a welcoming guitar part to open it. It had a typical song structure with sort of an anti-chorus, but it had a chorus. It peaked at Number 2 on the rock charts. It had a hypnotic video on MTV.
To me, “Deceit” always sounded like the calm after the storm. Layne Staley’s lyrics were always revealing, but there was always a self-awareness to them as well. He wasn’t in it to fool anyone, let alone himself. “Deceit” feels like it catches him in a self-reflective mood with much less self-loathing or self-hatred.
My pain is self-chosen
at least I believe it to be
I could either drown
or Pull moff my skin and swim to shore
Now I can grow a beautiful shell for all to see
The river of deceit pulls down, yeah
The only direction we flow is down
”I’m Above” starts with a familiar-sounding riff. But if it was in a Pearl Jam song, you feel like it would be quicker and in more of a rush. This song is once again dragging its way to a chorus, but not in a bad way. In fact, the first time you think they might hit a chorus, they don’t. It’s going to make you work for it.
How is it you're feeling so uneasy?
How is it that I feel fine?
Life reveals what is dealt through seasons
Circle comes around each time
I've been blessed with eyes to see this
Behind the unwhole truth you hide
Bite to remind the bitten, bigger
Mouth repaying tenfold wide
Over you I'm standing above
Claiming unconditional love
The vocals are notable because they sound so analog compared to the Alice in Chains version of Staley where it feels like there’s a liquid sheen over everything. It’s almost like this band chose to release its demo rather than go back and refine it with million-dollar producers and post-production. That’s the magic of Above I think. It feels so raw and intimate. There’s an authenticity that feels so much like its paying true homage to the true grunge aesthetic.
They released a deluxe version of the record in 2013. It included bonus tracks and live versions of the songs from The Moore Theater in Seattle. It’s impossibly good.
Fast forward to 1999 and John Baker Saunders died from a heroin overdose. Layne Staley had long since disappeared. His body would be discovered in 2002, dead at the age of 34. Even if it was something that many of his fans expected, the finality of it all was absolutely brutal. It felt like the true end of an era. It forever changed the whole vibe of Mad Season, much the way I talked about it changing the vibe of Alice’s breakout record, Dirt.
Mad Season was a record that came along and let you believe there was hope. If a Seattle supergroup could come together and make an awesome record without destroying their primary bands, anything was possible, right? And yet, when the story had been written, it was just another example of the hopeless lyrics telling the bleak future for not only Layne Staley, but John Baker Saunders.
It might seem crass to leave you with “Lifeless Dead,” but I actually think it’s kind of fitting because it’s leaving a man in his own words. It’s an iconic guitar riff. It’s some of the most powerful drumming by Barrett Martin. It’s Staley at his absolute best as a singer as well, no matter how hard it is to hear him sing those lyrics.