Mad Season's incredible 'Above' gets the treatment it always deserved
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
The dawn of what was later dubbed the Grunge Era is well documented and mythologized. Bands begat better bands in practice spaces meant to provide shelter from the relentless Seattle precipitation, eventually giving the music world the likes of Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam, while in Aberdeen, Nirvana and the Melvins were putting their own stamp on sludge.
The boom came in early 1992 or so. Nearly every band was signed, other bands moved in, and like every scene that gets too exposed too quickly, it began to fall apart. Bands split, the culture was mocked, Kurt Cobain ended his own life and the “Where are they now?” features started pouring in.
It was then, in the mid-1990s as watered-down versions of these great bands started flooding the FM dial, that four musicians took a break from their own chaotic lives to channel something deeper into their art. Layne Staley, Mike McCready, Barrett Martin and John Baker Saunders got together, recorded their only album, Above, quickly, played a few shows and then escaped back into the ether.
Through the years and the attrition of dismissing every non-giant from Seattle to the 1990s nostalgia bin, Above had been relegated to cult status, a curiosity for those interested in the individual members seeking out more of their music.
Cult followings are fine, and most records would be lucky to grab hold of such a rock and roll footnote. But Above always felt like something bigger to those in the know, an album deserving of higher praise and a place on every shelf of every listener who cares about this kind of thing.
Happily, it has a second chance at wider recognition with this release, Above — Deluxe, a two-CD, one-DVD package that captures nearly every moment of the band’s brief time as a working unit, their collective brilliance and even the extinguishing of the spark that drove this music.
Even on a cursory glance, the package is a boon to those who have long held this one-off band in the highest regard. The original album is augmented by plenty of live material from the band’s brief life on the second CD and the DVD, as well as extra tracks — a vicious remix of “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier” comes from the 1995 John Lennon tribute album Working Class Hero, while Mark Lanegan steps back into his role as second vocalist to finish off three tracks from the band’s second album, a project that was aborted due to Staley’s continuing descent into addiction.
The live material is nearly overwhelming to the dedicated. This is the first non-VHS release of the Live at the Moore material; the show is presented in full on the second disc while video from that show and a few other appearances pack the DVD. What’s present on the video is a band making music with purpose, albeit a little on edge and maybe even slightly self conscious while trying to hang loose. It’s a snapshot of the time. But, truly, they’re all beautiful embellishments on the main attraction, which is Above, remastered to perfection by Brett Eliason.
It was hard enough not to be moved by Martin’s words in the liner notes on Staley, Baker and the Blues (written with a capital ‘B’ throughout), using music to channel their own pent-up creative impulses and exorcise the demons that had taken hold personally and within the entire scene. By 1994 and ’95, Seattle had been swallowed up by mainstream affection and excess, and the band, as Martin recalls, formed around each other as a way to combat that. The Blues was their salvation, and they made music in that spirit if not necessarily in that style.
The heaviness of the album, though, can trace a line back from their respective bands through to the dawn of British heavy metal, psychedelia and garage rock and down into the Mississippi Delta. Martin’s heavy, rhythmic presence on the drums on this record has never been a secret, though how well-appreciated his work has been is up for debate. Martin himself saves some of his fondest words for Baker, who’s age and experience playing the club circuits in Chicago resonated through each and every one of his bass lines. Baker was brought into the fold by McCready, whom he’d met in recovery in Minneapolis while reeling from the effects of self-medication following Pearl Jam’s early success.
Of course, it’s Staley’s words and voice that lift this entire project beyond just a mere experiment and into the realm of experience. Having witnessed the downfall of Kurt Cobain and Mother Love Bone’s Andrew Wood, McCready and Martin saw this band as a way to get Staley on track and focused. But salvation was never in the cards; Staley was so deep on his darkened trip that he wouldn’t be saved.
But he did still have his artistic flame burning, and he lent his expressive lyrics over the soulful bed the band had composed. Listen to McCready’s guitar delicately glide in and out of “River of Deceit” as Staley calmly details his sorrow:
“My pain is self-chosen
At least I believe it to be
I could either drown
Or pull off my skin and swim to shore
Now I can grow a beautiful shell for all to see.”
Yet, even with Staley’s considerable presence, it’s hard not to hear the musical direction being driven by McCready. Each track features the guitar hiding in plain sight, revealing more and more moments of brilliance and awe on each listen. The Blues influence was most clearly heard on “Artificial Red,” with McCready channeling Albert King via Jimi Hendrix in the instrumental passages, going heavy on the distortion as often as he holds back for one-note punches and jabs. “Lifeless Dead” features a searing solo break in McCready’s unique tone — heavy on overdrive, burning through the delay pedal. “Slip Away,” one of the three newly completed tracks with Lanegan, is never short on the guitar pyrotechnics, saving McCready’s blasts for a few amazing bursts on the back end.
McCready’s shining moment here, of course, is “November Hotel,” a seven-minute instrumental that begins with Martin’s muted toms and ends as a tour-de-force for the sonic power of a Stratocaster. It pounds and rolls as it moves from subdued textures to an all-out assault, a force of nature hurtling from the Pacific Northwest and into the studio, carrying all of the weight of rehab, regret and fervor in a wave that crashes, demolishes and then quietly slinks back into the sea.
But, as is the theme with this album, McCready’s direction and power is taken to new summits when placed within the context of Staley. His momentous expressions in “November Hotel” are immediately followed by “All Alone,” Staley’s quiet prayer to the forces that push our lives too and fro. The guitar is again delicate and subdued, giving way to Staley’s soaring, layered vocals. “We’re all alone,” he sings. “We’re all alone.”
“All Alone” closed the book on the original Above, and indirectly, Mad Season as a band. McCready returned to Pearl Jam and resumed touring and recording. Martin and Lanegan resumed their work in Screaming Trees. Baker started working in bands in Seattle. 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, Baker died in his home of a drug overdose. Staley followed him in 2002.
This reissue, then, serves mammoth purpose. It brings Mad Season back to the spotlight, giving them a little more time in the sun than they were allowed under the umbrella of “grunge side project” which they were so callously dropped by some. It’s sheds a little more light on a moment in time where four tremendously talented musicians shared purpose.
This kind of treatment has been a long time coming for Mad Season. This is an archival project that was done tastefully, with great care and with an obviously immense amount of love. It gives Baker and Staley a chance to be heard again, and for McCready and Martin to remember their friends. It gives all of us who love the album an excuse to play it again and play it loud and play it for friends. And it gives all the curious listeners who might’ve missed it a chance to hear something tremendous.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org