Album Review: Above

There are few places on Earth par- alleled in their perpetual gloom than Seattle, Washington. As a native of the city, I never fully appreciated the somber atmosphere, the frequent overcast skies and rainy days created until I moved away to sunnier climes. Sequestered in the Pacific Northwest, Seattle’s music scene in the 1980s flourished in an underground capacity, largely undiscovered by outsid- ers until the dam broke with Nirvana’s 1991 release, Nevermind. Suddenly, the moody and introspective Seattle sound, so-called “grunge,” was a hot item in the music industry, with record labels fran- tically signing deals with up-and-com- ing bands, hoping for the next Nirvana. Grunge ultimately proved to be a flash in the pan, as addiction and waning interest devastated Seattle’s most popular acts. With the unexpected death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain in April 1994, grunge effectively died with him.

But America at large moving on from Seattle and leaving its musicians behind didn’t discourage them from con- tinuing to express themselves. This dole- ful atmosphere is where the long-for- gotten and criminally underrated Seattle act, Mad Season and their 1995 album, Above, arose. Prior to the group’s forma- tion, guitarist Mike McCready of Pearl Jam met bassist John Baker Saunders in rehab where they were combating their respec- tive substance abuse problems. Looking for a new project, the pair recruited sing- er Layne Staley, whose primary band, Alice in Chains, was on a temporary hiatus. McCready and Saunders hoped that their influence would help Staley stay clean from his own struggle with heroin. The trio finally enlisted Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin to finish out the lineup.

Desolate and morose, Mad Season’s Above fits in well with the grunge cata- logue and is essential listening for alt-rock fans. Sonically, the album feels character- istically raw, with sparse instrumentation and angsty lyrics. Unlike other Seattle bands who drew more influence from punk or metal, Mad Season stands out with blues-infused songwriting. Saunders plays a supportive role as the bassist, sel- dom the star, but nonetheless the lynchpin of the group’s tight-knit sound. Meanwhile McCready is right at home soloing on these bluesy tunes, drawing inspiration from guitar idols like Stevie Ray Vaughn with heavy, syrupy licks heard in “Artificial Red.” Martin, on drums, provides a driv- ing energy that elevates the intensity of the whole group, most visible in the vigorous track “X-Ray Mind.” The unusual variety of percussion on this album serves to fur- ther cement Mad Season as a band worth remembering, gently expanding the musi- cal expectations for their Northwestern locale. Even in the midst of such phe- nomenal musicians, Staley’s electrifying vocals are on another level. Freed from the constraints imposed by his work with Alice in Chains, Staley pushes the bound- aries of his expressivity in “Wake Up” and composed highly evocative lyrics for the group’s most popular song, “River of Deceit,” which also contributes one of the few glimmers of light to an otherwise bleak atmosphere. Singer Mark Lanegan’s gritty baritone vocals on “I’m Above” and “Long Gone Day” provide an additional emotional dimension to those songs that creates a pleasant contrast to Staley’s.

Like many other bands from Seattle, Mad Season’s existence was cut tragically short by addiction. Although the band members were enthused about the pros- pects of reuniting for a second album, their schedules rehearsing and perform- ing with their respective main groups kept them apart. Unfortunately, the chances of a follow up to Above began to diminish after bassist Saunders died of a heroin overdose in early 1999, but the band evap- orated altogether in 2002 with the death of singer Staley, also by overdose. Although it’s regrettable never knowing exactly how a second Mad Season album would have sounded, there are some clues. The 2013 deluxe rerelease of Above includes sev- eral original songs written by guitarist McCready and sung by Lanegan in place of Staley. However, in some ways, perhaps it’s appropriate that Mad Season’s discog- raphy is so scarce. Brooding, gloomy and cut too short, Mad Season provides the perfect representation of Seattle’s music.

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