Mad Season – Above (1995)

Rock history has its hefty share of sad stories about great musicians struggling with addiction and losing the struggle. Jimi Hendrix, John Bonham, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, the list goes on an on, a litany of misery and pain which people often have trouble relating to, considering the fact that the people going through these ides and not making it through do enjoy huge popularity, fame, fortune and so on, and still end up burning themselves away like that. Mad Season is a band which seems to me inextricably linked to this struggle for balance, and the way it’s sometimes simply unattainable.


Mad Season was a sort-of grunge supergroup formed in the mid-nineties, out of members of Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and The Screaming Trees – almost all of them musicians who had struggled with drug addiction and had went through rehab. The band was a form of celebrating sobriety, and a form of maintaining it, via constant reciprocal support. The only one in the band who wasn’t sober was Layne Staley, the singer from Alice in Chains, who got drafted into its ranks in an attempt to get him off drugs. In this sense, Mad Season was the biggest, most remarkable intervention I’ve ever heard of. I won’t dwell on the fact that it didn’t really work, I’d like to think that’s nothing more than a sad afterthought to the wonderful spark this band kindled. Mad Season isn’t a grunge staple, they aren’t a band which would get recommended a lot, not a high-profile, triple A affair. What they are, is honest, balanced and moving. Their music is a very satisfying blend of grunge’s more abrasive side with a sort-of acoustic sensibility, a slow, deliberate tempo maintained throughout the record. It’s also influenced by a wider range of genres than grunge as a whole admitted to, which keeps the album fresh, satisfyingly eclectic and meaty.

Truth be told, you won’t hear anything truly surprising on Above. The slow tracks remind me of Alice in Chains’ acoustic releases, the harsher parts sound a lot like Pearl Jam and there’s even a definite nod towards Nirvana’s style (particularly heavy drumming, remarkably simple and memorable guitar riffs) on I Don’t Know Anything. However, this album seems to me like a true x-ray of a whole generation’s musical mode of though, a wonderful panorama of grunge in all its iterations, lifted well above mediocrity by Layne Saley’s unique voice, shifting from whisper to rending scream instantly and with impeccable timing. It’s what I’d call a “cozy” album – a low expectations-high results sort of thing (the whole material was put together in about three weeks, it’s about as close as grunge has come to a jam band), not as seminal as Nirvana’s Nevermind, not as ferocious as Alice in Chains’ Dirt and not as popular as Pearl Jam’s Ten, but rather smack in the middle, balanced, self-sufficient through self-awareness.

Above is the only album Mad Season ever released – the band went on what was basically a semi-permanent hiatus after that, due to the members’ conflicting schedules. Eventually, the whole thing fell apart with the death of the bassist, followed three years later by Layne Staley’s own demise at the hands of substance abuse. This year marks a decade since he passed away, and I can’t really explain why I’ve been dwelling so much on his work as of late, I guess it’s just one of those synchronicity oddities. Mad Season seems to me like a wonderful way of remembering him – a relaxed, simply creative band who didn’t waste any time worrying about labels, fluff and pomp, and was trying its best to drag him away from his demons. There’s no happy end, bu there’s a shimmering, vibrant middle to the story, and Mad Season is the soundtrack.

I hope you enjoy this music, even though I’ve set a rather depressing tone, for which I apologize. I promise I’ll try to talk about some sunnier music next time. See you soon!