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One Album Wonders: Mad Season

Posted by Eric Brightwell, November 2, 2015 02:31pm | Post a Comment
Mad Season

The Scientists were likely both grunge's inventors and the genre's first supergroup (members had previously played in Cheap Nasties, Slick City Boys, and Victims). However, if one hears “grunge supergroup” they more likely think of Temple of the Dog, a one album wonder the members of which had previously played in Seattle grunge bands including Soundgarden, Green River, and Skin Yard (as well as the not-really-grunge one album wonders Mother Love Bone and not-at-all Seattle - since they were from San Diego - Bad Radio). Mad Season, when they're remembered, are that other grunge supergroup. 
 
Mad Season's Above


Mad Season arrived pretty late on the scene, toward the end of 1994. In April of that year, Kurt Cobain had killed himself but alternative and music had by then long ceased to be anything remotely underground and was resolutely mainstream. In 1992, MTV had replaced 120 Minutes host Dave Kendall with, Lewis Largent and the program, which had previously showcased a host of bands playing diverse music became a parade of bands whose members dressed like Largent, in shorts, combat boots, flannel, and backwards baseball cap. If that wasn't mainstream enough, MTV also launched the ironically named Alternative Nation as a showcase for the manufactured corporate guitar rock favored by soulful dudebros (eg Candlebox and Stone Temple Pilots).
 

In 1993 Marc Jacobs had served up grunge realness on the catwalk for Perry Ellis -- five years after Martin Margiela had pretty much done the same thing, serving up a fantasy of homeless fashion for the one percent. By 1994 pre-ripped jeans and combat boots were part of a uniform adopted by the knavescene and celebrities like Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, and Keanu Reeves. Their female counterparts, such as emaciated supermodel Kate Moss,  were used to promote heroin chic. After not having heard any interesting new American rock in what seemed like forever, I gave up on it. I would hear the names of new bands, including Toadies, Seven Mary Three, Sky Cries Mary, Jars of Clay, Primitive Radio Gods, Eels, DC Talk, Duncan Sheik, Sister Hazel, Local H, and more. All would have their champions but like every Steven Spielberg movie since Raiders of the Lost Ark, if I gave any a chance I'd almost certainly be underwhelmed. 

 
 

Mad Season were one of those bands I was aware of but never heard the music of (until now). I was familiar with the most of members’ respective bands. Barrett Martin (drums) came from Screaming Trees, a psychedelia-tinged grunge act that I appreciated. Layne Staley was from Alice In Chains. He had an interesting voice, although Jerry Cantrell wrote that band's best songs. Mike McCready was a guitarist in Pearl Jam, a band whose first record I’d connected with when I lived on an Iowa hog farm and they were an actual alternative to the Garth Brooks, Travis Tritt, Billy Ray Cyrus, and conservative classic rock playlist of KGGO that seemingly sustained my classmates. John Baker Saunders had played in a bunch of blues bands but after the end of Mad Season would play in the sometimes excellent Seattle (and not-at-all-grunge) band, The Walkabouts.

Saunders and McCready met whilst kicking heroin at a Minneapolis rehab facility. Upon returning to Seattle they formed a band with Martin and, after working on a couple of songs, brought in singer Staley, still very much in the throes of his own dope addiction, which ultimately killed him. They wrote a batch of songs quickly, rehearsed twice, played four shows and cranked out Above in just over a week in the studio. Given their respective bands, that Above is steeped in ‘70s arena rock theatrics comes as no surprise. Despite the guitar licks and solos, there are no real anthems though, or even especially memorable tunes. 

Martin adds nice bits of color with occasional double bass, cello, marimba, and vibraphone but the songs get by more on groove than melody. There's less color to the lyrics, however, which are relentlessly serious and unceasingly hopeless. Allmusic’s allstar reviewer Stephen Thomas Erlewine astutely observed that the album, “sounds like a cross between Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam.”
 

Above was Top 40 — it reached 24 and produced two expectedly nihilistically-toned singles, “River of Deceit” and “Don't Know Anything” but it wasn't apparently intended as anything more than a sidegig and after the album's release, the members returned to their day jobs. Attempts were made to revive the band but Staley’s addiction had worsened his health to the point where his involvement was impossible. Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan, who’d contributed vocals on several tracks on Above, took over lead vocals and the four continued as Disinformation. Disinformation began working on an album but when Saunders died of a heroin overdose in 1999, the band was again on hiatus. When Staley died in 2002 it seemed likely the end of Mad Season but in 2012 the surviving members (and Lanegan) joined Loaded singer Jeff Rouse and bassist Rick Friel to play once again. In an interview on Louisville’s WFPK McCready claimed that Mad Season were at work on a new album. However, when Above was re-released in 2013 it included five unreleased tracks from the unreleased second album and a disc of live material, and that was apparently the end of Mad Season.

The members of Mad Season’s primary bands were certainly influential on a quite a few bands but I've never heard anyone cite Mad Season as an influence. A search online of bands influenced by Mad Season led me to the Werehouse music website, which suggested Godsmack, Sinch, Creed, and 3 Doors Down. I’m not sure if Mad Season can be blamed for any of those (and I’ve never heard Sinch, who might be excellent for all I know) but I do blame Staley in part for the resurgence of the topknot. Ever since the 1970s there’s been a twenty year revival cycle and like clockwork, twenty years after Staley started rocking that ridiculous ‘do, a Pinterest memo went out to the world’s conformists alerting them that it was time to grow out their hipsterjugend 'dos into that most unflattering of hairstyles and within a fortnight the unflattering coiffure was being donned by the likes of Colin Farrell, Mr. Posh Spice (David Beckham) and every insufferable, pretentious bartender who wants to be referred to as a "mixologist." 

*****

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Seattle (7), Screaming Trees (2), Pearl Jam (13), Layne Staley (1), 1995 (1), 1994 (3), Grunge (4), Heroin (7), Mad Season (1), One Album Wonders (63), Alice In Chains (3)