A few songs into Living Colour’s Shade, their first album in eight years, we hear the voice of Houston rapper Scarface vocalizing the familiar, herky-jerky hard rock riff that drives the fusionists’ classic, Grammy-winning 1988 single, “Cult of Personality,” as he excitedly recalls catching one of their concerts in the early Nineties.
The praise for the group precedes the similarly chunky new tune “Program,” an implied vibe that links the outfit’s past and present like how we scroll through our smartphones’ selfie history before taking another snap.
“You know what, human life changed utterly when we created the means to look backward,” says guitarist Vernon Reid. “There was a time when people only lived life forward. There was a time when there were no mirrors other than when you had to look at your face in a lake. The idea of a band looking back at itself, I mean, that’s the whole thing about ‘Program.’ ‘Program’ almost is a conversation about technology, but also the way we interact with it, the way we use those things en masse to deal with each other, or not deal with each other.”
It’s not just Living Colour’s past that gets explored and expanded upon throughout Shade. Rather than an original composition, it was a run-through of Robert Johnson’s “Preachin’ Blues” at a 2012 centenary concert in Harlem for the late guitar legend that kick-started Living Colour’s creative process.
Reid recalls going to the New York Public Library in his youth to study “haunting” 78s of the master bluesman, with “Hellhound on My Trail” sticking with the fledgling player throughout the years in a web of influences that also included John McLaughlin and Allan Holdsworth. Decades later, Living Colour stomped out Johnson’s “Preachin’ Blues” in Harlem, pretty well on the fly.
“We weren’t able to really rehearse ‘Preachin’ Blues’ at all, and we managed to figure out an approach, literally, in the dressing room of the Apollo Theatre,” Reid notes. “The great irony is it took a few years after all of that for Shade to be done.”
After Living Colour sunk their teeth into a Mississippi blues standard, Reid began to add more down-south flavor to his already expressive playing. “Preachin’ Blues” and Shade opener “Freedom of Expression” make use of a ring finger slide that enabled the guitarist to maneuver between high-string slipperiness and chord work. Steeped in a hot buttered horn and organ arrangement, wailing 12-bar workout “Who’s That” bears influence from Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign.” That said, Reid notes that these bluesy nuances are only one of Shade’s many colors.
“I wasn’t thinking we’re going to make a strictly defined blues record,” he says. “I was thinking that the blues should be part of the information, should be part of the DNA like how hard rock and metal are connected.”
Throughout the five-year period that produced Shade, Living Colour popped off a rhythmic juggernaut with their hard rock update of the Notorious B.I.G. diss track “Who Shot Ya?” though the original’s controversial message is inverted to reflect gun violence and racial profiling.
Elsewhere, “Come On” has producer Andre Betts chopping and contorting Reid’s scale runs to sound like bassy EDM drops.
The manic “Pattern in Time (Skin in the Game)” came late in the process, the faster-paced piece and its metronome-exploding blur of lead work conceived after Reid realized the full-length needed a heavier edge. “I wanted to get some squeals in there,” Reid says with a laugh.
“The guitar is a tool, but it’s also a way of thinking, a way of living. It’s a grid of possibilities,” he continues, noting that his guitar playing continues to evolve as he re-contextualizes his way around a neck. “I’m always hoping to be available for the music to move me in a way that I haven’t been moved the previous week, or the previous second.”
Photo: Travis Shinn
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