Fiery six-string fretwork hasn’t been so hard to come by since Eddie Van Halen blew minds with “Eruption”‘s sheer insanity. In the two decades since, plenty of nimble-fingered, mathematically inclined demigods have inspired countless pimply faced preteens to seek out distorted salvation in the aisles of Guitar Center. Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, Eric Johnson, Blues Saraceno, Joe Satriani with curly locks, Joe Satriani with a shiny pate—all have taken the image of guitar-slinger to technical extremes with varying degrees of success and self-indulgence.
But no one—no one—shreds like Vernon Reid. No one whips guitar strings into a merry-go-round frenzy like Vernon Reid. No one can toss off some whiplash pentatonic skronk like Vernon Reid. In a steel cage match where shredding guitar was the only weapon allowed, Reid would have any competitor begging for mercy with his certifiably insane speedpickery, long before their amplifier tubes could even get the chance to warm up.
Reid is best known for his work with the rock-metal band Living Color, he of the blistering guitar solo in “Cult of Personality” that gave you sympathy pains in your fingers when it first came kicking and screaming from the radio. But Reid is a student of jazz, a brainy avant-garde noodler at heart who got his start in the early ‘80s playing for the free jazz/funk unit Ronald Shannon Jackson & the Decoding Society, and subsequently collaborating with other fringe jazz heavyweights like Bill Frisell and John Zorn. In 1996, following the demise of Living Color (the band reunited for a new studio album last year), Reid released his first solo album Mistaken Identity. Oddly co-produced by Prince Paul and the legendary Teo Macero, the album was a mash of rock, funk, jazz, and hip-hop that offered eclectic landscapes for Reid’s jaw-dropping improvisations.
Eight years later, Reid has resurfaced with Known Unknown, a decidedly more linear jazz-rock hybrid than its genre-hopping predecessor. Known Unknown (which is being released on the aforementioned Steve Vai’s label) offers 12 songs recorded with Reid’s band Masque, consisting of Leon Gruebaum (keyboards), Hank Schroy (bass), and Marlon Browden (drums). Reid’s guitar is the album’s dominant force, a vibrant machine that attacks at will, spitting, bubbling, and frothing at the mercy of its master, often awash in sustained fuzztones. Schroy and Browden are both in complete command of their instruments: the former grooves deep in the pocket and the latter drops fills like cars falling onto a busy freeway. Gruebaum is one of the album’s biggest surprises: he’s created a one-of-a-kind strap-on keyboard MIDI controller, dubbed the Samchillian Tip Tip Tip Cheeepeeeee (no kidding), which allows him to sequence patterns, perform with lightning speed, and therefore keep up with Reid.
Known Unknown works best when Reid and Masque work from simple grooves. “The Slouch” is a thick slab of funk structured around a deep melody played in unison by guitar, bass, and organ. The title track starts as an upbeat guitar melody over pulsing keyboards, only to veer into funky territory, Gruebaum filleting his organ over Reid’s wah-wah guitar. “Voodoo Pimp Stroll”, which features an appearance by DJ Logic (Reid and Logic collaborated in 2002 as Yohimbe Brothers), squeezes some fiery droplets from its steady, boiling vamp. Reid’s solos break out of nowhere with a cache of pent-up speed; although you expect their arrival, they often have the ability to catch you off guard. It’s this element of Reid’s playing that makes for a visceral, thrilling listening experience.
Some jazz purists may raise an eyebrow at the band’s cover of Thelonious Monk’s classic “Brilliant Corners”, boldly interpreted as a rabid dance of absurdity. Reid’s trademark speedpicked solo is executed with furious abandon; it seems that he leaves not one inch of the guitar neck untouched. It’s easy to marvel at the level of skill with which the band approaches “Brilliant Corners”, but the playing is so technically chaotic that it’s equally easy to lose track of the song’s direction. They have more luck with a cover of Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder”, a playful, skittish blues-based tune that features some of the album’s most enjoyable improvisations.
A few tracks veer off the beaten path: “Strange Blessing” boasts Reid’s gorgeous clean guitar tone and some crystalline synth sounds; atmospheric instrumentation coats “Down and Out in Kigali and Freetown”‘s drum-and-bass groove; “Flatbush and Church” rides waves of sustain and delay, reminiscent of spacey Hendrix songs like “Third Stone from the Sun”; and “X the Unknown” begins with a programmed hip-hop beat and clavichord before Reid lets multiple guitar synths loose like seething dogs from a cage.
If your only exposure to Reid is as the Keef to Corey Glover’s Mick-in-tight-biking-shorts, Known Unknown is a perfect place to get reacquainted. Some of the album’s delirious moments are a bit more complicated and highbrow than simply ecstatic, but that’s a minor grievance. If high voltage chemistry and juicy improvisation is your bag, Reid and Masque have got the goodies to fill it.