They're back in full Colour

Before Rage Against the Machine, Linkin Park, and the rest of the hybrid rock-rap outfits, there was Living Colour. The New York band became known during the late 1980s for its raucous sound, heavy chops, and, to their considerable consternation, a role as four black guys residing in White Rock Nation.

After their initial meteoric and influential rise, Living Colour experienced diminishing sales and album-tour-album burnout. They split in 1995, citing exhaustion.

Five years later, the eclectic rockers resurfaced with a one-off performance at the New York club CBGB's, where Mick Jagger first discovered them. This week marks the release of Living Colour's first album in a decade, "CollideOscope" (Sanctuary Records).

The return is anything but a sure success, guitarist Vernon Reid said in a recent phone interview from his Brooklyn home.

"I don't envy other bands - Jane's Addiction or anybody else - trying to find their way back to making music together again," he says. "It's really hard. There are all these questions, internally and externally: 'Can we do it? Where do we fit in?' "

Mr. Reid says events tied to Sept. 11, which occurred midway through the making of "CollideOscope," convinced the band to concentrate on contemporary concerns - something it excelled at on its 1988 debut, "Vivid."

"CollideOscope" tackles terrorism, fear, political uncertainty, and unintended consequences in equal measure.

Reid and his band adamantly dismiss the label of black-rock pioneers, citing Jimi Hendrix and Fishbone as obvious predecessors. Still, it's no accident that Reid heads an advocacy group called the Black Rock Coalition.

Critics and musicians often acknowledge the influence of Living Colour, but the band is rarely seen on the ubiquitous turn-back-the-clock rock shows that have aired on MTV and VH1 in recent years. The irony is heightened by the temporary presence on VH-1 of Corey Glover, the band's lead singer.

Reid does his best to avoid legacy discussions. "Trying to figure out your influence is difficult," he says. "People take much different things from a given piece of work than what you expect. You never know how somebody will interpret something."

With drummer Will Calhoun and bassist Doug Wimbish, who played on the Sugar Hill Gang's seminal track "Rapper's Delight," the band became an MTV staple with the thunderous single, "Cult of Personality." It combined Van Halen-worthy moments of air-guitar bliss, Glover's stomping lyrics, and a groove-heavy bottom end worthy of George Clinton.

Living Colour played football stadiums as the opener on the Rolling Stones' "Steel Wheels" tour in 1989 and, in a demonstration of the band's diversity, moved from there to a slot on the first Lollapalooza outing.

"Vivid" sold 2 million copies and Living Colour collected a couple of Grammys. Subsequent releases, despite bright moments such as "Elvis Is Dead," generated paltry sales.

Along the way, it got lost. Heady lyrics and a diverse sound blending everything from Led Zeppelin to Public Enemy to experimental R&B made the band hard to peg.

Translation: Record execs couldn't make them part of the hair-metal brigade, nor could they lump them in with the hip-hop crowd. It seems like eons ago, but pairing rockers and rappers was a rare thing in 1988, save the novelty of Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C. joining forces.

Living Colour dipped in and out of unusual sonic combinations, while offering thoughtful observations on political and sociological issues. Even their power ballad - "Open Letter (To a Landlord)" - tackled the plight of affordable housing. "Vivid" featured backing vocals from Jagger, as well as Chuck D. and M.C. DJ Flavor Flav.

The notion of returning as elder statesmen amuses Reid, an endlessly curious musician who dabbles in acid jazz, classic rock, hip-hop, electronica and anything else that might be fodder for Living Colour's ever-shifting palette.

"To see a cat like [rapper] Nas approaching a ripe old age is kind of strange," Reid says. "The new school is old school and the old school is, like, in a museum or something."

In the hip-hop world, Outkast and the Nappy Roots are among the newer acts Reid admires. Many of the more popular rappers, he says, fail to move him.

"The whole bling-bling, sing about cars and jewelry - that does nothing for me," Reid says. "Sing about your car all you want, but I'm not interested. To me, that's dead - and someone will eventually show up and sweep that stuff away."

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