Mad Season: Layne Staley (vocals, guitar); Mike McCready (acoustic & electric guitars); Barrett Martin (cello, vibraphone, marimba, acoustic bass, drums, percussion); John Baker Saunders (electric bass). Additional personnel: Mark Lanegan (vocals); Nalgas Sin Carne (saxophone). Recorded at Bad Animals, Seattle, Washington. Think of the one-shot Seattle supergroup Mad Season as the grunge version of sober living. Guitarist Mike McCready, best known as the main six-string slinger in Pearl Jam, met bassist John Baker Saunders while in rehab, and the two paired with Screaming Trees' drummer Barrett Martin and Alice in Chains vocalist Layne Staley, partially in hopes of steering the singer onto the path of the straight and narrow. Ultimately, the plan didn't pan out, but for a brief while, the quartet -- who adopted the name Mad Season -- did have their moment of clarity, captured on the 1995 album Above. There was a single issued to modern rock radio -- "River of Deceit" -- but this record downplayed easy hooks and melody in favor of churning introspection and slow vamps that occasionally flirt with blues (the never-ending 12-bar "Artificial Red," balanced by the distorto riffs of "I Don't Everything"), but usually conjure nothing more than the dank sludge of Seattle. Mad Season aren't quite mired in the darkest areas of grunge -- they're clever enough to let a saxophonist lend color to "Long Gone Day" -- but the lack of melodicism is a bit of a drag over the long haul, turning Above into a bit of heavy mood music. In a sense, it's the id of Seattle run rampant: all the bands involved, outside of Saunders' Walkabouts and Martin's Trees (who were nevertheless considerably more popular than Saunders' group), enjoyed commercial success in 1995, so they could have gotten away with anything and, in a sense, they did, as a major-label actually released this turgid bit of soul-baring heavy rock. McCready gets plenty of room for his elliptical guitar, the players has space to dig into their minor-key vamps, Staley essays his only set of completely original lyrics, but the whole thing feels kind of inert and indulgent, which may be appropriate for a band treating rock & roll as therapy. [The 2013 Deluxe Edition of Above is loaded with bonus material, beginning with four tracks from Mad Season's unfinished 1999 album, finally completed with the Screaming Trees' Mark Lanegan as lyricist and vocalist. Lanegan adds a gravity the otherwise tortured Staley lacked -- as dynamic a frontman as Layne was, Lanegan feels made of granite -- and consequently these bonus tracks are little more compelling than the proper album. Elsewhere on the Deluxe Edition lies the entirety of the group's final gig, a performance at the Seattle venue the Moore from April of 1995, captured as both a CD (weighing in at 11 tracks) and a DVD (a seven-cut edit, followed by five bonus tracks). Elsewhere on the DVD are other live performances, including a full concert at RKCNDY and some highlights from Pearl Jam's Self Pollution Radio. These bonus cuts don't change the overall impression of the album, but they do give hardcore fans plenty of rarities to savor.] ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine
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