Above (Columbia ’95) Rating: B+
With Alice In Chains on temporary hiatus, Layne Staley joined forces with some of Seattle’s finest (guitarist Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, talented drummer and multi-instrumentalist Barrett Martin of Screaming Trees, and the unknown John Baker Saunders on bass) for an ad-hoc supergroup a la the prior Temple Of The Dog. This gave Staley a chance to show off his songwriting skills (Jerry Cantrell is Alice's prime songwriter), especially as a lyricist, while giving McCready more of a chance to strut his stuff (sans Stone Gossard), particularly on the jam-based instrumental track "November Hotel." And though it could be argued that Mad Season lacks some of the phenomenal chemistry of their parent bands, Above is well above average on the whole. For example, the excellent "Wake Up" begins the album with a slow, moody burner that gradually builds in intensity (it's over 7 minutes long), boosted by Staley's powerful vocal performance. "X-Ray Mind" is a groove-based track on which Staley duets with himself (via multi-tracking) to make up for Cantrell's absence on backing harmonies, a strategy that also works well elsewhere, while Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan also occasionally helps out vocally, like on the loose, laid back (but at times also pretty heavy) "I'm Above," the song from which this album takes its title. The unplugged, jazzy "Long Gone Day" likewise has a loose, groovy vibe, helped in part by Martin's inventive percussion, while "River Of Deceit" is a wonderfully melodic downer that actually got plenty of airplay back in the day. Maybe not as much, but so did the brooding droner "Lifeless Dead," with its memorable riffs and layered vocals (all Layne again this time), and "I Don't Know Anything," a hook-filled hard rocker that churns along with an Alice In Chains-like intensity and features more stellar McCready soloing (both songs constitute metallic mid-album highlights). The pretty, keyboard-based "All Alone" provides a sleepily satisfying if somewhat underdeveloped finale, though it also exemplifies the albums primary weaknesses, namely an over-emphasis on mood and at times a lack of focus, plus some of these songs plod a little too much for their own good; for example, "Artificial Red" starts slowly and never really gets going. On the whole, Above moves along at its own unhurried pace, and the album's considerable commercial success made me fear that perhaps my beloved Alice In Chains would be heard from no more. Alas, Mad Season has since been silent, as each of its main members went back to their perspective meal tickets, suitably refreshed from the experience. Note: McCready and Saunders met in rehab, and Layne’s had his own well documented substance abuse problems. Alas, Saunders (1954-1999) and Staley (1967-2002) couldn’t overcome their demons, but at least together they left behind this fine album.