27 years ago with the release of single albums worth of work, a musical legend of Seattle’s alternative music scene was born. A side project conceived by four talented musicians, who had come together in a moment of time that would forever be immortalised in the 10 songs that make up ‘Above’, with their music representing the end of the golden period of the ‘Grunge’ scene, that had taken the world by storm during the early 90’s. Singer Layne Staley (Alice In Chains) and guitarist Mike McCready (Pearl Jam) were the undoubted stars of the project, two troubled musicians who were each peaking in their respective music careers, but looking to be heading down a slippery slope fuelled by hard narcotics and alcoholism, that was starting to alienate them from their respective band mates.
Alice In Chains were a huge rock act following the release of their debut album ‘Facelift’ and its MTV hit ‘Man In A Box’ in 1990, before their masterpiece second album ‘Dirt’ saw them reach even greater heights in 1992. However by 1994 cracks were beginning to show and Layne Staley’s inability to function within the band around the release of their EP ‘Jar Of Flies’, saw the cancellation of the records subsequent tour with Metallica, causing immense friction within the group and subsequently throwing them into hiatus.
Mike McCready had also experienced almighty success with Pearl Jam who’s debut album ‘Ten’ in 1991 blasted them into the mainstream, seeing the band ride the crest of a huge wave of success which continued with the release of second album ‘Vs’ in 1993. However McCready’s own drug use and dependence on alcohol was also starting to impact on his performance within the band and during the recording sessions for Pearl Jam’s third record ‘Vitalogy’ in 1994, he checked himself into the Hazleden Clinic, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre in Minnesota.
While in rehab McCready met bassist John ‘Baker’ Saunders, a relatively unknown Seattle based Blues musician, and a friendship blossomed as they spent time together and bonded through music and under the clarity of a sober mind. Both gentlemen returned home to Seattle and decided to form a musical project to help them focus on their recovery, drafting in their mutual friend Barrett Martin, percussionist with The Screaming Trees to play drums. During their initial sessions they wrote the music for the first two Mad Season songs, including ‘River Of Deceit’ and what would become their haunting album opener ‘Wake Up’.
Requiring a vocalist to complete the band, McCready being aware of the self imposed break from Alice In Chains, spoke to his friend Layne Staley about the opportunity, while also hoping that bringing him in to a project with three sober musicians would have a positive influence on his own downward spiralling substance abuse. With only a handful of rehearsals between them, and no finished songs, McCready started booking local club gigs in the latter part of 1994, calling themselves The Gacy Bunch (a mix of serial killer John Wayne Gacy and The Brady Bunch) first playing together at Seattle’s Crocodile Cafe, while also making an appearance on Pearl Jam’s Self Pollution pirate radio broadcast in Jan 1995. By this time they had a further three songs written that would go on to make up ‘Above’, including the rambling and melancholic blues influenced ‘Artificial Red’, and two darker heavier tracks in ‘Lifeless Dead’ and ‘I Don’t Know Anything’.
As their notoriety grew, plans to record their album were put into place and the band changed their name to Mad Season, after the period in the English autumn when Magic Mushrooms grow, a period that McCready had enjoyed while visiting the UK with Pearl Jam, and a time he also associated with his previous excessive times of drug and alcohol abuse. They recorded ‘Above’ in less than a fortnight at the Bad Animals Studio in Seattle, bringing in Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees) to sing backing vocals on two tracks ‘I’m Above’ and on the record’s beautiful ode to past times ‘Long Gone Day’, which also prominently features the avant garde Saxophone work of local Jazz artist Skerik.
And like that, this extraordinary collection of music was born, a classic album featuring 10 beautifully haunting songs which flow perfectly from one to the next. From soulful blues and jazz influenced down tempo tracks, to the heavier use of distorted ‘Grunge’ riffs, bringing together a myriad of influences and inspiration. The rhythm section of Baker and Barrett Martin is tight and free flowing throughout, while Mike McCready’s guitar playing is at its finest, having total artistic freedom to take his soloing to another level, most notably on the powerful instrumental ‘November Hotel’. As ever, Layne Staley bared his soul with a lyrical darkness giving a brutally honest insight, in to his own self analysis of drug addiction :
‘Wake up young man, it’s time to wake up,
Slow suicide’s no way to go.
The cracks and lines from where you gave up,
They make an easy man to read’
‘Artificial red, smoke, poison consumed,
In the house of ill repute.
Is this the way, I spend my days,
In recovery of a fatal disease’
‘So much blood I’m starting to drown,
Runs from cold to colder.
Tears and lies for answers,
You and open veins,
God knows I’m gone’
(Long Gone Day)
‘My pain is self chosen,
At least I believe it to be.’
(River Of Deceit).
Released in March 2015 on Columbia Records, ‘Above’ was certified gold in June peaking at No 24 on the US billboard chart and spawning a hit rock radio single with ‘River of Deceit’. The band had a manic few months promoting the record and playing a handful of shows, including an iconic performance at Seattle’s Moore Theatre on April 25th which was immortalised on film, while also recording a cover version of ‘I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier’, which was contributed to a John Lennon tribute album.
And then the group went their separate ways, disappearing into the summer for each member to concentrate on their day jobs. Alice In Chains would regroup with Layne to record their final self titled album and perform their last shows, including the legendary ‘Unplugged’ performance for MTV. While Pearl Jam would embark on a tour for ‘Vitalogy’ and start writing for their next successful album ‘No Code’. Barrett Martin and Mark Lanegan would tour with Screaming Trees and record ‘Dust’ their first album in four years, while Baker would join folk rock group The Walkabouts.
But McCready always saw the project as ‘an old girlfriend that you’ll always go back to’, and two years later in 1997 attempts to create new music faltered due to the unavailability and deterioration in health of Layne Staley, who was descending deep into a life of solitude away from the limelight. However with their creative juices flowing McCready, Barrett Martin and Baker brought back Screaming Trees vocalist Mark Lanegan to work on new music, but out of respect to Staley they changed the name of the project to Disinformation, stopping and starting over the course of the next couple of years, finding time to come together and write when time allowed.
As the quartet worked towards demoing for an album, tragedy struck as Baker succumbed to a Heroin overdose, and died in 1999. Naturally the project stalled, and although the door had always been left open for the pieces to be picked back up, and with the hope that Layne Staley would come back into the fold, the singer himself then passed on, also of a drug overdose three years later in 2002, leaving Mad Season finally done, buried spiritually in the minds of their remaining members …
Ten years later in 2012, Mike McCready and Barrett Martin came together again to oversee a deluxe and definitive box set release of ‘Above’, with a remastered version of the original album and with a live recording and DVD included of their legendary gig at The Moore, as well live footage from an intimate 1994 NYE show at the RKCNDY and the Self-Pollution radio broadcast, and their one music video for ‘River of Deceit’. Three new songs were also included from the writing sessions of the previously never heard second album, with lyrics from Mark Lanegan, as well as the John Lennon cover recorded with Layne Staley in 1995. The release is a perfect compendium of the bands works, freshened up for a new generation to appreciate the timeless music, while paying a fitting tribute to their departed friends.
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