A beautiful epitaph for a short-lived supergroup
The tapestry of rock ‘n’ roll is often woven with tragedy and evolving stories cut short. Mad Season, Seattle’s version of a rock supergroup, formed in 1994, was comprised from members of Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, The Screaming Trees and The Walkabouts. The band released only one album, 1995’s hit Above, and one live VHS release called Live at the Moore before a temporary hiatus which became their ultimate unfortunate demise. Vocalist Layne Staley semi-retired due to substance abuse issues so Mark Lanegan (drummer Barrett Martin’s Screaming Trees bandmate who co-wrote and sang lead and backing vocals on many Above songs) became the band’s new lead singer. Sadly the project derailed with the fatal heroin overdose of bassist John Baker Saunders in 1999. Staley died three years later under depressingly similar circumstances.
On 2 April 2013, Columbia/ Legacy released a new, deluxe, remastered version of Above containing not just the original LP but the entire audio set from Live at the Moore, bonus tracks that include three songs from Mark Lanegan’s tenure as lead singer and the first commercially available release of Live at the Moore on DVD. The overall package will be a treat for fans and, surprisingly, may set the band in a new light almost 20 years after their debut.
Mad Season hit the stage and the charts in the shadow of the suddenly popular “Grunge” movement, seeming like a side project of two of the genre’s current greats in Alice in Chain’s singer Staley and Pearl Jam’s guitarist Mike McCready. While “Grunge” is certainly an ingredient in the Mad Season formula, Above is a much more complex and experimental album that still defies a single standardized label. McCready picks out blues inspired solo riffs and Sabbathy aggressive chords, often on top of each other. Staley’s vocals eschew the usual straightforward mumbling growl of normal grunge for a haunting assortment of diverse notes that evoke Robert Plant’s Led Zeppelin cries as much as Alice in Chains’s album tracks.
Mad Season actually benefits from the separation from (and, thus, lack of comparison to) the rest of the grunge family tree. With their lack of fear to indulge in and experiment with unconventional musical elements (note the xylophone and saxophone accompanying Staley and Lanegan’s duet on “Long Gone Day”), Mad Season were labeled by critics as all over the map and unfocused (amid generally positive reviews). In hindsight, Mad Season give the impression of having been ahead of their time and less tied to the top forty of their day. Sure, had their actual debut been in 2013 instead of 1995 the band would feel like a throwback, but the question is, a throwback to when? The grunge era of the mid-1990s or the artistic and experimental mid-‘70s?
As a requiem for the band, Above also takes on a different tone. In light of Staley’s grim end, his haunting, echoing cries of “Down, oh Down. My pain is self-chosen.” on “River of Deceit” and his raspy pleading of “Is this the way I spend my days; In recovery of a fatal disease?” on “Artificial Red” sound like a sorrowful prophecy of his death by heroin and cocaine. The production (by the band with Brett Eliason) adds a ghostly reverberation to Staley’s voice as if he is calling out this dire self-examination from down a long, empty hallway.
At the same time, the live discs (both audio and video) do just as fine a job of showcasing the energetic passion Mad Season had for their music and gratitude for their fans. This is especially showcased in the long, sprawling 1970s style jam session the band undertakes with their guest musicians during the song “November Hotel” (one of very few tracks to feature Staley on rhythm guitar). The band flows into different keys and tempos as one distorted, yet solidly linked unit as comfortable on their harmonious melodies as they are on their murky, walls of sound and their Who-like smashing of their amps, not for gratuitous spectacle, but for the effect on the sound itself. The DVD disc contains four more songs from the Moore show, shakily filmed from the audience as well as a similar-quality second concert Live at RKCNDY (both worth seeing and hearing for that in-the-raw impact) and three of the band’s music videos.
The three Lanegan-centric bonus tracks are worthy inclusions (far more than just curiosities). However, these fail to stand up to the unique experimentation of Above more closely resembling the traditional (and then all popular) grunge sound. That said, these were only three tracks from a band who was still trying new things at the time their existence was cut short. That is the true sorrow of this band. Like so many tales of rock woe, Mad Season could have done more and gone higher than Above if given the chance. This deluxe edition is the closest we’re likely to get to a “Complete” Mad Season, and this composite album is, indeed, a worthy representation of a proficient and passionate band cut short before their time. Above’s Deluxe Edition is not simply all we have of Mad Season, but is in many ways a “Best Of” compilation. It is really too bad that this collection also had to stand as the band’s epitaph.