Threading the needle. That was Seattle music in 1994. A desperate, futile gambit to save what few musicians remained from Lady Heroin’s clutches. Cobain was dead. A hideous monster was uncovered, in that bands came to realize that their labels would capitalize upon their deaths just as they would their lives. It’s one of the sickest, most repugnant eras in recording history.
Mike McCready, guitarist for none other than Pearl Jam, entered rehab for drugs and alcohol during the production of Vitalogy, in Minneapolis. Just imagine the options for debauchery that McCready was presented with; you can’t. I can’t. Pearl Jam has sold around 60 million albums worldwide. When that happens, secret people offer you more of something you like than you’ve ever seen, or knew existed. Anyone would give anything (or say anything) to be with you.
In the safety of rehab, McCready met bass player John Baker Saunders. Together, they later formed a trio with Barrett Martin, drummer of Skin Yard and the Screaming Trees. Oh, man, credit where due: “Nearly Lost You” by Screaming Trees is a great song.
Anyway, the three musicians, clean and sober, began work on what would become the Mad Season tracks “Wake Up” and “River of Deceit”. The latter was their big hit single, and it’s worthy of that honor, but “Wake Up” opens Mad Season’s solitary effort Above. Layne Staley provides the vocals, and I daresay his work here surpasses anything he did with Alice In Chains. I heard this in 1995 and I was hooked instantly.
Staley is utterly naked about his struggle with heroin in Above‘s lyrics. This is because he was in the final stages of addiction, and would be dead a few short years later. Baker, player of the exemplary bass that gives “Wake Up” its backbone, would die of an overdose in 1999, prompting the final dissolution of this brilliant “supergroup”. It was hoped that Staley would benefit from working with sober musicians, but during the Great Heroin Deathwave of the 1990s, an addiction was a mortal wound. The blood just runs out more slowly for some.
Let me repeat: fuck heroin.
Look at the soulful, pleading eyes of Mike McCready, pictured here with a couple of dudes you probably know:
Imagine that face coming out of rehab, and trying to keep his friends from being eaten alive, and just losing one after another. The place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back. The last rites for whatever it was the media labeled “grunge”. Those eyes witnessed it all.
The tones of “River of Deceit” are so clear and vivid they build a house inside your head. Sunlight beams through gauzy curtains. Relief. Warmth. Security.
The album cover is a painting by Staley; others are reproduced at tiny size in the liners. Hey, you know who else sings like Layne Staley did? Nobody. Thanks again, heroin.
Not every song on Above is perfect. “I Don’t Know Anything”, the second single the label picked to rotate, is not a song I like at all. It sounds like a bad Alice In Chains B-side. Ditto for “I’m Above”. But it’s better to have the entire shebang, especially since half of the band is no longer with us. A beloved summer past is memorialized on the incredible “Long Gone Day”, which features percussion marimba and bone-deep bass.
“Artificial Red” is another gloomy highlight, acrid with smoke and pulsing with menace. It breaks my goddamn heart that it all worked out like it did. These guys were more than the sum of their parts. Can you believe this is over 20 years old?
That is not a song; that is the lobby of a methadone clinic. Maybe even the alley out back.
The absolute masterpiece of the album is track nine, an instrumental called “November Hotel”. Martin’s drums rise and fall like crashing thunder. McCready’s melodic guitar transforms into waves of shattering feedback. Baker holds the reins on bass, like the sails of a ship in a maelstrom. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the greatest sound that ever emanated from Seattle, Washington.
True to form, the band saves the saddest for last; “All Alone”. The lyrics, in toto, are “We’re all alone”. It’s one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard in my life. Maybe it’s just me, but the guitar sounds like the sensation of razor pressed against wrist. For the love of god, if you’re feeling kind of blue, do not listen to this track.
Above is alongside In Utero and Vitalogy as the finest offerings of the Seattle “grunge” era. If you don’t suffer from depression, or if you have a handle on it, you owe it to yourself to own this. It’s a document of something that could never be replicated, and a glimpse into the darkest places pain and addiction can lead.