Too many notes and too few tunes make Vernon Reid's third solo outing a difficult listen.
Despite the fact that the band seemed to go their separate ways in 1995, it is difficult to discuss Vernon Reid without mentioning Living Colour, so I will get it out of the way right at the beginning, but I can't promise that I won't mention it again. When Living Colour hit the scene back in the 1980s, they promised to be a fusion of metal and funk and soul. This was a promise that they almost made good on, and they went on to spearhead the funk-o-metal carpet ride that rock music became between 1988 and 1990. They took up a lot of column inches and they brought with them into the limelight such acts as Fishbone, Jane's Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Faith No More, and (ahem) the Dan Reed Network. The stand out members of the band were Corey Glover, for his powerful and sometimes soulful vocals, and Vernon Reid, for his amazing technical ability to make the guitar sound like it was a wild beast that needed taming. Since 1995, Reid has done turns for the likes of Tracey Chapman, Jack Bruce, and DJ Spooky, as well as recording another Living Colour album in 2003.
"Masque is about identity," claims Reid. He maintains that it is this question that has informed everything that he has done from the beginning of his solo career. On listening to Other True Self, it is difficult to see how Mr. Reid has spent his time exploring this question. As an analytical tool, the compact disc format is not exactly foolproof, but it does offer a snapshot of time that one can look at in more depth. Regrettably, he offers no insight into his true self, unless this particular self is disjointed and confused and asks more questions than it answers. As a closet social psychologist, I am willing to believe that is the case. Even more problematic, this particular exploration of the psyche can be a trying experience at times.
The album opens with "Game Is Rigged", the kind of instrumental that tended to uncomfortably sit on a Living Colour album. It sets the tone for the rest of the album in terms of temperament. The song is poorly behaved; it refuses to stay in one place, like a hyperactive child desperate to grab your attention. One second it is harmonics and hammer-ons, the next it is syncopated beats with a lounge style organ and lots -- and I mean LOTS -- of guitar. Next up, we get a cover of Radiohead's "National Anthem", from their Kid A album. Musically, it is note perfect, but robbed of Thom Yorke's paranoid ramblings the song loses all of its tension and claustrophobia. The pinnacle of this album has to be the instrumental (did I mention that this album was an instrumental?) version of Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence". This is another note-perfect tune that almost lifts off, but then just falls into yet another safe guitar noodle. Reid explores his identity all over Martin Gore's masterwork, replacing its dark and moody conclusions with diddlydiddlydiddlywahwah followed by a jazz club-style bass solo. You can almost hear bass player Hank Schroy's head nodding as it happens. Mine too, but for a different reason. Frankly, I would have enjoyed the silence had there been any.
That's the main issue with this collection and albums of this type. Vernon Reid is clearly a very talented guitar player. However, guitar players do not need to breathe in between musical phrases, thus instrumental sections lack natural gaps and pauses. As Emperor Joseph II said in Amadeus, "It's quality work. But there are simply too many notes, that's all." After a while, the rambunctious noodling becomes tiresome, and when you add this to the scarcity of any songs, or even tunes masquerading as songs, you find yourself wishing the whole experience was just over. I mentioned Living Colour so much at the beginning of this piece because when you listen to this album you realise precisely what it was that made them great. They had songs with words in them that allowed the listener a little recovery time before the next guitar offensive.