Living Colour’s latest album Shade mixes heavy metal mayhem, raw electric blues, and blunt socio-political commentary
Watching Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 2017 documentary series on the Vietnam War led me to ponder the following question: have we witnessed the end of iconic epoch-defining popular music?
Perhaps the single most compelling aspect of the 17-and-a-quarter-hour PBS documentary series is its soundtrack, which featured a veritable galaxy of iconic music from the 1960s and early 1970s, including the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Pete Seeger, Simon and Garfunkel, Marvin Gaye, Jefferson Airplane, CCR, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, and Led Zeppelin — among many others, framed by sound design by the gifted duo of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
What would a comparable soundtrack for our current epoch in North America sound like? I have no idea. Could it be that our “culture” (for lack of a better word) has become so atomized and so fractured by digital media that we no longer share any sort of collective epochal soundtrack? Will we all look back at the 2010s with completely disparate era-defining sounds and songs?
That said, I’m going to step out on a limb and nominate Living Colour’s newly release (as of September 2017) album Shade as my thus-far defining album for Trump-era America. No doubt others will nominate other albums for this honour, but for what it’s worth this is my pick.
Those familiar with Living Colour probably remember them as “that black hard rock band from the late eighties and early nineties” that enjoyed a brief moment of superstardom thanks to their 1988 MTV hit “Cult of Personality” and their double-platinum debut album Vivid, which came out in the same year and notably featured backing vocals by Mick Jagger and timely contributions by Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flavor Flav.
Then, after touring with Guns n’ Roses and the Rolling Stones, they all but disappeared beneath the waves — and disbanded in 1995. They reformed in 2000 and have been soldiering about the North American and European festival circuits ever since, but have yet to regain the sort of mainstream success they enjoyed at the outset of their careers (aside from lead singer Corey Glover’s brief reappearance in the limelight in the role of Judas Iscariot in a touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar in 2006). Their subsequent albums Collideøscope (2003) and The Chair in the Doorway (2009), however, were widely praised by critics while largely ignored by the public.
Shade, however, is on a level on par with “Cult of Personality”, and, like their debut album, speaks volumes of the era from which it emerged. While the group announced the forthcoming album well below the ascendancy of President Donald Trump, the themes it explores could scarcely be more timely. In the same way that Kurt Anderson’s trenchant cultural critique Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire outlines the sad story of how the US arrived at its bizarre present-day moment, Living Colour provides some biting, piss-and-vinegar incidental music tailored to the present-day USA.
As an African-American rock band born long after rock ’n’ roll had been thoroughly whitewashed, Living Colour have always been anomalous, and even their mere existence has rankled mainstream sensibilities. Indeed there appeared to be something about a group of black musicians playing a music style generally associated with skinny long-haired white dudes in spandex pants that made industry executives uncomfortable, emerging as they did amid the racially-charged late eighties and early nineties alongside epoch-defining rap albums like N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton and Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet.
Shade is therefore the perfect album for an era that in many ways echoes the strange days of Rodney King and the 1992 Los Angeles riots, while in other ways hearkening to the era of Jimi, Marvin, Sly and the Family Stone, and other African-American musical icons of the Woodstock generation. The music itself is a beguiling mix of vintage Black Sabbath-era heavy metal, raunchy electric blues, and P-Funk groove seasoned with elements of prog rock and glam metal, hip hop, and electronica. Guitarist Vernon Reid — rock music’s most criminally underrated guitar hero — has never sounded better, while Glover’s golden pipes are as spectacular as ever.
And the songs? Let’s say they’re timely to the point of being a bit on the nose, but these are the times we live in.
The album’s bombastic opener “Freedom of Expression (F.O.X.)” immediately sets the tone for the entire album, with lyrics fine-tuned for the present moment such as:
“The news you use has been falsified; to use my fear against me inside; won’t let you choose for me, pick a side; no left, no right, no middle, no divide.”
From this timely intro the album jumps way back in time to the murky roots of the Delta blues with a hard rock cover of the Robert Johnson classic “Preachin’ Blues,” a particularly arresting showcase for Glover’s vocals as he howls and shrieks like Diamanda Galás. This is followed by the sassy, swaggering “Come On” and the explicitly political “Program” — a hybrid of sorts that begins as a diatribe against social media hate-peddling and morphs into a rap on police brutality centred on the 2014 events in Ferguson, Missouri.
A year prior to Shade’s release Living Colour quietly released an EP called Who Shot Ya centred on the band’s rap-metal cover of the Notorious B.I.G. song by the same name. The 2017 also features the gangsta rap classic, this time reinterpreted as an anti-gun and anti-police brutality anthem, with some of Biggie’s original off-colour “diss track” lyrics dropped — all the while retaining the brutality of the original. One interesting change from the original is the replacement of “Crooklyn’s Finest” with “Brooklyn’s Finest,” which hints that the malevolent narrator is in fact an officer of the law rather than a gang member.
Other album highlights include the melancholy “Always Wrong,” a failed relationship anthem with lyrics and electronic shading that could have come off a Porcupine Tree album, the hardcore punk-influnced “Pattern in Time,” the blues-funk ripsnorter “Who’s That” featuring Trombone Shorty-esque brass and organ, and the album’s third and final cover — this time of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.”
Two years ago I wrote an article entitled “Rock is Dead — But Only In The West” in which I argued that the future of rock music belonged to Asia. I still largely agree, but with Shade Living Colour appears to have given American rock ’n’ roll a much-needed shot in the arm. It’s punchy, testosterone-drenched hard rock that packs the same sort of punch as Galaxy Express, Ngũ Cung, Rudra, or other Asian rock bands I’m fond of extolling. It’s also — and this saddens me to say — probably going to be largely ignored by mainstream North American audiences the same way bands from over there are.
But for anybody looking for a great indignation soundtrack for this current depressing moment in history, this is a great place to start.