"A mesmerising snapshot of the nihilistic grunge age": Mad Season's only album may forever be associated with tragedy and loss, but the musicians sound liberated

Mad Season
(Image credit: Lance Mercer)

Mad Season’s one and only album, Above, will have its 30th birthday next year. The record was released at the apex of the Seattle scene, in March 1995, and it presents a mesmerising snapshot of the nihilistic grunge age. The beginnings of Mad Season in a rehab clinic correlate directly with the forlorn spirit of Above and, sadly, two out of the four band members are now dead. 

Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready met unknown bass player John ‘Baker’ Saunders in Minneapolis while both of them were undergoing treatment for alcohol/substance abuse. “Baker was rooted deep in the blues,” McCready noted. Back in Seattle, “the two of us, along with Barrett Martin [Screaming Trees drummer] and Layne Staley [Alice In Chains vocalist] decided to get together and create Mad Season.” 

Basically an ad-hoc Seattle supergroup (late Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan was also involved in the recording of this album), the group originally called themselves The Gacy Bunch, after Chicago ‘serial killer clown’ John Wayne Gacy and cheesy TV show The Brady Bunch. They finally plumped for Mad Season – an English expression for the time of year when hallucinogenic ‘magic’ mushrooms are ripe for the tripping. 

Mad Season gave Staley space to exercise his songwriting skills away from the influence of Alice In Chains’ main composer, guitarist Jerry Cantrell. Similarly, McCready was able to let loose without having fellow Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard droning along beside him. 

Recorded in just 10 days at Seattle’s Bad Animals studio (co-owned by Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart), and with striking lino-cut cover artwork by Staley himself, Above is a mega-melancholic mishmash of grunge, blues and heavy rock. Staley puts in a wretched, transfixing performance, and his lyrics are as soul-searing as they are obtuse: ‘My pain is self-chosen/At least I believe it to be/I could either drown/Or pull off my skin and swim to shore/Now I can grow a beautiful shell for all to see.’ (River Of Deceit). 

McCready revels in his liberation from Pearl Jam – and not only on the pysch-shrouded instrumental November Hotel. At the beginning of the deliciously evil ‘Lifeless Dead’, for example, the buzzing sound spilling from his heavily cranked-up amplifier heralds a riff of skin-melting, Maidenesque proportions. Later in the track, McCready spirals into free-form guitar hell, while Staley half speaks/half chants the song’s title. It’s scary. 

The unsung hero of Above is bassist ‘Baker’ Saunders. “He could lead a dark side of music with intense feeling,” McCready said. And the loping, downer rhythm of Artificial Red – a song that brings to mind The DoorsThe WASP (Texas Radio & The Big Beat) – endorses that comment in spades. 

After the release of Above, Mad Season contributed a cover of John Lennon’s I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier to the album Working Class Hero: A Tribute To John Lennon. And then it all went strangely quiet. With Staley increasingly AWOL, rumours circulated that a second Mad Season album would be recorded with Mark Lanegan on vocals. A name change to Disinformation was also proposed, but nothing ever came of it. 

‘Baker’ Saunders died from a heroin overdose in January 1999. Staley – whose last words on Above are '…we’re all alone’ – followed suit on April 5, 2002, while his prospective replacement, Mark Langean, died in 2022. Staley was killed by a speedball (a crazy mixture of heroin and cocaine) overdose and, spookily, his death occurred precisely eight years after the suicide of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. Layne’s demise truly marked the Season’s end.

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton is a British journalist who founded the heavy metal magazine Kerrang! and was an editor of Sounds music magazine. He specialised in covering rock music and helped popularise the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM) after using the term for the first time (after editor Alan Lewis coined it) in the May 1979 issue of Sounds.