Tuesday, July 5, 2011

July 5: Living Colour, "Cult Of Personality"

Artist: Living Colour
Song: "Cult Of Personality"
Album: Vivid
Year: 1988

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If there was one thing that the era from the rise of jazz through the end of the psychedelic era proved, it was the fact that when one mixes together various genres and cultural influences, amazing music is almost always the result.  Yet as the 1980's began, one can see a rather widespread trend of bands becoming segregated in many ways, and this was especially apparent within the hard rock genre.  As "hair metal" began to take hold, there were virtually no rock bands boasting members of any racial diversity, and this is perhaps what led to the era having a rather bland mainstream rock sound.  Thankfully, there were a handful of bands that did all they could to buck this trend, and few groups have proven to be more essential to the progression of hard rock than New York City's own Living Colour.  Through for some odd reason they are often thought to be a British band, Living Colour honed their sound and the famed CBGB's, finding a distinctive balance between hard rock, blues, funk, punk, and psychedelic sounds.  There was an edge to their music that was simply not being recorded elsewhere, and it is this fusion of sound and attitude in their performances that earned them one of the most dedicated followings in history.  While their entire 1988 debut, Vivid, stands as an absolute landmark in hard rock, there are few songs from any point in history that can compare to the emotion and power found on Living Colour's monumental single from that album, "Cult Of Personality."

While every element of the musical arrangement on "Cult Of Personality" is superb, there are few riffs in history that are as unforgettable as the lead found here, played by Vernon Reid.  It is within his playing where one can quickly understand the entire approach of the band, as well as many of their influences.  There is a funky groove in the riff, yet there is also a heavy crunch that enables it to become completely captivating.  It is also the attitude with which Reid plays that is so significant, as it becomes almost punk in nature, yet retains the strong musicality throughout.  Furthermore, the solo that he delivers later in the song stands as one of the most mind-blowing, devastating performances in all of music history, and it is here where one can hear the psychedelic influence, as well as the reason Reid is held in such high regard.  Yet it is also the way that the rhythm section brings their distinctive punch and sway to "Cult Of Personality" that makes it such a phenomenal musical feat, and there are few performances that are on par with that found here by drummer Will Calhoun.  He quickly establishes himself as one of the best of his generation, and the force with which he plays gives the song an amazing sense of urgency.  This is highlighted by the deep, funky progression from bassist Muzz Skillings, and it is the way in which these sounds all come together that push "Cult Of Personality" into a category all its own and makes it so that even more than twenty years after its initial release, it remains impossible to resist "rocking out" whenever the song is played.

Providing the ideal finishing touch to the song, the vocals from Corey Glover manage to capture not only the urgency of the song, but the frustration and almost warning nature of the lyrics.  While there have been many throughout history, it is impossible to mistake Glover's voice, and it is often the extent to which he can push the power of his voice that is the most impressive.  The way in which he presents the lyrics become completely captivating, and there are many moments on the track where Glover almost comes off as if he is "teaching" the listener, and it gives even more credence to the idea that "Cult Of Personality" was far more than a typical hard rock song.  The lyrics remain some of the most thought provoking and intellectually powerful that have ever been penned, as one might even need a history book to catch all of the references that the band makes during the song.  Name checking everyone from Mussolini to Gandhi to The Nobel Foundation, the band bookends the song with recordings of speeches from Malcolm X and Franklin Roosevelt.  The fact that Living Colour is able to do all of this, without coming off as cliché or pretentious at any point is a testament to the brilliant sound that they deploy throughout the entire song, and the energy and style with which Corey Glover delivers the lyrics fit perfectly, making for one of the most uniquely powerful vocal tracks ever recorded.

Though it took a bit of time for "Cult Of Personality" to catch on, once it did, it cemented its place as a radio staple, and to this day, the song still receives regular rotation.  The impact of the song was felt all across the world of music, and one can easily point to Living Colour as the catalyst for the re-diversifying of music throughout the 1990's.  Bands like Rage Against The Machine and Body Count certainly owe a great deal of debt to the pioneering efforts of Living Colour, and the attitude and power of their music resonates today as perfectly as it did more than two decades ago.  Along with this influence, "Cult Of Personality" was able to bring together music fans from all over the spectrum, as the way in which the song fuses funk, metal, punk, and even avant-jazz becomes a combined sound that is nothing short of stunning.  Once the song caught on, it quickly rose to the top portions of many sales charts, and it would eventually earn Living Colour a Grammy for "Best Hard Rock Performance."  These accolades and sales were the result of the entire musical work, but it is impossible to deny just how far above the rest the guitar work of Vernon Reid stands.  The soul and emotion that be bring to his performance here are truly unparalleled, and one can only listen in awe of his talents.  Absolutely every element is perfectly balanced and the band seems on a mission to not be ignored, and it is these realities that make Living Colour's 1988 single, "Cult Of Personality," one of the most memorable and most powerful moments in all of music history.

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