The Lost Gem : Mad Season – Above

1994. A typical coffee shop in Seattle, Washington has four friends in the table looking like the world has crushed them. In way, it has. One of them is the lead guitarist of a highly successful band that’s in a the midst of a lawsuit with Ticketmaster. Another one is a blues bassist who met the guitarist while in rehab. The drummer is a junkie for multiculturalism and Zen. The singer has been through hell and back, several times, battling inner demons but always able to draw a wry smile on demand.

Although the place is warm and the coffee is releasing copious amounts of steam, they feel a creeping cold in their souls. One of them sighs and says “well, that show at The Crocodile Café was good, right?” They nod and after looking again the pieces of paper, where the name The Gacy Bunch has now been crossed out. Instead, the name Mad Season has four ticks. The singer draws a happy psylocybilin mushroom and laughs. It’s an honest laugh.

The guitarist is genuinely happy to see him. The music they are creating is dark. Very dark. It does carry a slight hint of salvation; the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. A part of him wishes that his plan carries out: he wants the lead singer to go sober and hopes that being in a band with three sober members will help him out. Heroin would end up slaying 50% of Mad Season.

But they wouldn’t know that back then. It was all about a psychedelic mix of grunge, blues, jazz and trippy music. The rain outside (it’s Seattle, eh?) intensified and they made a toast with their cups. They had a couple of songs to finish creating and outside, a man with a gruff appearance is waiting for them. His name is Mark Lanegan and he was happy to contribute to the song they were rehearsing that day.

Mad Season. THE supergroup of Grunge. One of the best bands from the 90s, highly ignored in most retrospectives of the 90s. They only created one album, Above, before going into a hiatus that never ended.

4 highly talented individuals. Mike McCready, just out of rehab and the exhausting creation of Pearl Jam‘s Vitalogy. Barrett Martin, the multi-talented drummer still working for Screaming Trees (another oft-ignored band). John Baker Saunders, an astounding bass player that left in ’97 after a replacement singer couldn’t be found. Layne Staley, that single malt voice that to a lot of people (okay, me) represented the through spirit of the 90s: frustration, pent-up anger and nihilism.

Above was recorded with lightning-fast speed at Bad Animals Studio, that quasar of legendary albums. Bred from jams, the music sounded like nothing else that was on the radio. Staley‘s usual screams, growls and wails were mostly absent (except in ‘I don’t know anything’). Instead, he chose a very calm voice, soothing in some moments (‘River of deceit’, ‘All alone’). The lyrics were extremely passionate and honest, a reflection of Staley’s psyche. It was an open book for all to read. In the words of Martin: Layne Staley felt as though he was on a spiritual mission through his music. Not a rock mission, a spiritual mission.” Extra lyrics were added by Mark Lanegan in ‘I’m above’ and ‘Long gone day’.

I can never say which is my fave album of all time, but I’m sure Above would be in the top three. Just 10 songs (I don’t have any fancy copies with extra tracks). From the mournful bass notes that open ‘Wake up’ (and its explosive 7 minutes) to the almost a capella closer (‘All Alone’), the album screams of introspection. No ballads, no angst-ridden rants at relatives, no political statements. It’s all about the inner turmoil in oneself, the fight we battle against ourselves. Just like ‘River of Deceit’ said: “My pain is self chosen“.

It’s funny. I wasn’t a fan of Alice In Chains back then, but Mad Season made me a fan of their entire discography. Possibly the Unplugged sealed the deal…but yes, it was Mad Season‘s ‘River of Deceit’ what made me appreciate Staley‘s voice, something that once felt too abrasive but now felt like the sound of inner desperation.

Anyways, Mad Season‘s Above was more than a four man show, as the quality of the guest stars is unparalleled, who shine in the utterly sexy ‘Long gone day’. Mark Lanegan‘s voice is chill inducing, perfectly juxtaposed with Layne‘s vocals. The sax by Erik Walton (aka Skerik aka Nalgas sin carne) is what makes this song veer into musical perfection.

Perfection in an album that picks apart the flaws of the individual. A contradiction quintessential to the 90s zeitgeist. Even when there are no lyrics (‘November Hotel’), the music conveys raw emotions that will permeate you and stay with you forever.

Above was the only album Mad Season recorded. They played a few gigs, but then everyone went back to their other projects. There were talks of a second album, but it never happened. Saunders and Staley‘s deaths (1999 and 2002, respectively) seemed to be the nails in the coffin of this band, but recent talks of instrumental tracks lit the emotional fires of the fans of Mad Season. An announced remaster (due in March of 2013) with a DVD of their Moore Theatre concert and a couple of unreleased tracks are great news indeed. There’s even talks of doing a new album, with Mark Lanegan taking over vocal duties. Some truths, some wishful thinking, but the solid, actual truth we have right now is that Mad Season created a stunningly beautiful album called Above. Check it.

Words: Sam J. Valdés López

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