Mad Season, the prolific super group consisting of Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, Barrett Martin from Screaming Trees, Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, and John Baker Saunders from The Walkabouts. Together, Mad Season combined their grunge roots and Seattle style to collaborate on a piece of American rock and roll history.
Using Staley’s iconic voice, McCready’s slithering style on guitar, Baker’s smooth bass lines, and Martin’s rapid drum work, the match was seemingly made in heaven. Mad Season began as an underground style of work, and McCready despite not having any songs prepared, scheduled a show for Mad Season at the Crocodile Café. Most surprisingly, the show was a huge success and one of the 12 tracks would emerge from this show, “Artificial Red” would appear on the album as a lead into one of the slower tracks of Above.
Above opens with “Wake Up,” a slow crawl of a track that eventually builds up into a full scale emotional battle between Staley and the instrumentalists. Baker starts the track off with a bass line that continues to buzz through the entirety of the track, this bass line and Staley also end the track and it feels almost melancholy. The entire song, even at its most climatic point has such a dark overtone and Staley’s lyrics nearly overshadow the rest of the track.
Staley calmly explains, “For all the times you let them bleed you,” and with additional lyrics contributing “Slow suicide is no way to go,” and “The cracks and lines from where you gave up,” are going to paint these extremely bleak images in a person’s head. Staley’s lyrics where almost always full of self-deprecation or misery, in Mad Season, Staley continues on this theme and this works in complement to the instrumentals.
“Wake Up” is an extremely slow and melodic constructing track. The opening is this somber walk with the bass and guitar playing eerily, to the point where it is near silent. Then as Martin’s percussion and Staley come in, the track eagerly picks up speed before coming back to the daunting sounds it first presented.
Following is the track “X-Ray Mind.” This song speeds up the momentum on the record, beginning with a gradual drum roll that launches into a full-out electric guitar and bass melody that work in tandem with Layne’s voice. “X-Ray Mind” is the first track that resembles more of the “Pearl Jam mixed with Alice in Chains” sound that Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic described so well. The use of the powerful percussion work from Martin and Staley’s voice represent the Alice in Chains aspect, while McCready’s flashy guitar work and Baker’s smooth bass line’s better represent the Pearl Jam side of things.
Trailing right behind is “River Of Deceit,” one of the bigger commercially released tracks off of Above. This track focuses more on McCready’s guitar work as the bigger, more fleshed-out sound. Mad Season seems to focus themselves more around his guitar, almost building off of it, rather than competing with it. Staley’s voice is still a pivotal point on this track and for the rest of Above, but this is a specific track where another band member takes the ropes and allows the other instrumentalists to take a backseat.
“River Of Deceit” features a melodic style of approach where rather than going for the classic rock style, this takes more a relaxed method. The sound is accompanied by these great chords that continue through most of the track, laying the ground work for the other instrumentalists to follow behind. Baker plays a slightly different groove than McCready and they again complement each other rather than compete against each other. This whole track feels like a balance, rather than trying to challenge, they simply build each other up.
Next is the track “I’m Above,” a slow rock song that uses vocals from Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees. Together both Lanegan and Staley go on a back and forth near conversation that works as a wonderful complement to the already outstanding backing instruments. The track then picks up power with Martin playing a volley of snare hits and launching into one of the quicker segment of the track with Lanegan and Stanley shouting “I’m Above, over you I’m standing above.”
This is one of the few tracks where Lanegan provides backing vocals for Mad Season, and the contrast between his gruffer style of singing and Staley’s higher melodic style of singing is the perfect parallel that together just performs outstandingly well. They are the focal point of the track, bringing in tranquility, and despair simultaneously.
The track “Artificial Red” follows and is one of the more lumbering songs on Above. It is still impactful, giving off a powerful impression from the blues style of guitar and the pounding drums that Martin is so well known for. Baker plays this shambling bass line that never picks up too much even when the rest of Mad Season is moving much faster.
Baker takes a chilled approached to his bass work, and it is a significant piece of every track. The sections where his bass shines through can live on their own within the tracks and are great additions every single time. “Artificial Red” is more a blues ensemble than a rock and roll track.
“Lifeless Dead” follows and features Staley on rhythm guitar. This is one of the more upbeat songs on Above, features harmonies and melodies between the instruments and vocal performance by Staley. Even as the tracks title suggests, “Lifeless Dead” is actually one of the livelier tracks, it adapts a new persona for Mad Season instead of the usual slower style of play that most of Above is accustom to.
Hearing the full band kick into overdrive, allowing Staley to gracefully shout over the wonderful arrangements of Martin’s drum fills and crashing cymbal work, to McCready’s impressive solo, the entire song is an excellent ride.
Carrying off of “Lifeless Dead’s” momentum, “I Don’t Know Anything” is a gritty guitar focused track that runs parallel to Staley’s bleak style of writing. Together, the two complement each other so well and create such great chemistry. Baker and Martin are also strong presences with Martin giving great percussive hits on what sounds like sheets of metal over McCready’s guitar solo, and Baker delivering a downright dirty bass rhythm throughout the track.
Mad Season takes a slower approach to most of their tracks on Above, but this is done stylistically as a progressive movement. The slower approach still keeps the same level of intensity and sounds like a darker version of Alice in Chains or a more experimental Pearl Jam. The way these artists collaborated together and formed one higher entity is just outstanding.
Mark Lanegan then returns to display another great complementary piece with Staley as the two work together to form “Long Gone Day.” This uses different ethnic percussion instruments from Martin like bongo’s and what sounds like rain sticks or maracas. This track also features an amazing saxophone from Eric Walton, better known as Sherik. His saxophone is one of the highlights of the track as it begins subtly until finally taking over the entire song. It comes in section, but seems to paint the entire mood of the track, almost changing the genre of Above entirely. There are also what sounds like a marimba being used as a backing instrument and it gives this desert rock vibe off, the entire track is a multi-genre, multi-layered masterpiece.
The lyrics of “Long Gone Day” are also shining points as Staley and Lanegan deliver some chilling lines describing “So much blood I’m starting to drown,” and “I fear again, like then, I’ve lost my way. And shout to God to bring my sunny day.” Both incredibly strong lyricists like Lanegan and Staley were able to create these morose scenarios that continue to echo even 21 years later.
“November Hotel” follows and this is the longest track on Above. The long run time adds to the tension that is presented at the song’s beginning, to the then blasting instruments that kick in around halfway through the track. It starts with McCready’s shallow and light hearted guitar to Martin very slowly launching the percussion into a pounding assault which the rest of the band seamlessly follows into. The gradual build up makes the track’s frantic ending even more worthwhile, and even as Above does not always feel guided or set on an objective, it feels like an outstanding jam album that can be repeated over and over again.
The sound focuses more on being experimental and using more resources than a usual release by any of the members’ former bands. The very noisy guitar that McCready plays with on “November Hotel” is a perfect example of just how experimental the band become as time progressed. Interestingly enough, even as the music was recorded in just about seven days, it was still an immense exploratory piece at best.
Following is “All Alone,” a track that uses more of McCready’s dreamscape guitar work, and Martin’s bongos again. The track also features Staley delivering a reverbed spacious approach to the vocals that keeps the theme of the experimental aspect. “All Alone” is a much different track than the rest of Above, but this is most certainly not a bad thing. The constant experimentation keeps the record feeling fresh and no one sound ever feeling like it is repeated. “All Alone” is the final track on Mad Season, and when the silence creeps back in on the listener, Above begs to be played again.