Classic Rock Review

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The Mahavishnu Orchestra Apocalypse (1974)


Ever the restless experimenter, John McLaughlin decided to soldier on after the acrimonious breakup of the first Mahavishnu Orchestra. He had an even grander musical vision in mind. First he put together a larger version of the band, and not being content to stop there, bought in the heavy artillery, known as the London Symphony Orchestra, tapped one Michael Gibbs to do the orchestral arrangements, enlisted the services of a young up and coming conductor in Michael Tilson Thomas, who had a taste for the adventurous and unconventional. And to cap it off, Johnny Mac enlisted the services of Beatles producer George Martin to capture this grand experiment on tape.

Did the bold experiment work? For the most part, it did.

We begin with “Power of Love”, where the orchestra plays a quiet and somber understated theme as Jean Luc Ponty spins forth a haunting melody on his electric violin and McLaughlin adds poignant acoutsic guitar. But this is just a prelude to something very unsettling.

That unsettling something being “Vision Is A Naked Sword”. Beginning with a rumbling gong, both the band and the Symphony unleash an ominous “Wrath of God” reworking of the main theme of “Dance of The Maya” and in doing so, nearly scaring the crap out of you, with Johnny Mac peeking out with his trademark scary dissonant arpeggios. From there things get even more jarring and intense, as J Mac and Ponty trade off phrases, Narada Michael Walden interjects and the band plays a fine game of volleying riffs back and forth before things draw to a terrifying orchestral close. WOW!!!!

Next up, “Smile Of The Beyond” is a attempt to lighten the mood after having the fear of God put in you. As the strings come in, Gayle Moran (the future Mrs. Chick Corea) does the wailing diva thing, howling at the moon with some rather preposterous pseudo-cosmic lyrics over a fairly saccharine string arrangement, then the band kicks in with the guys singing the song’s signature line over a fairly active fusion groove, but somehow, this one just doesn’t quite add up or succeed at what it attempted.

“Wings of Karma” is a nice orchestral interlude leading to a sort of gospel-inflected fusion groove, paving the way for “Hymn to Him”, a multi-part epic that has more than the minimum USDA daily requirements of instrumental fireworks, that reaches a fiery climax as Johnny Mac and the band trade riffs with the whole London Symphony, quite fun to listen to actually and then it winds down to a beautiful, serene ending.

This is not what one would call easy listening by any stretch.

The overall recording quality is spacious and crisp, thanks to George Martin’s finely tuned ears and ace Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick manning the faders. The recording of this album was a pretty complicated affair according to the participants, having to stay in synch by way of a closed circuit TV system in the studio.

Quibbles? I have some.

First, Johnny Mac’s guitar is uncharacteristically low in the mix and doesn’t come across with quite the fullness that it normally did on previous recordings. In fact, it sounds downright thin and overly metallic in a lot of places, almost hurting the ears sometimes.

Second, Gayle Moran. Her keyboard work here is adequate but not really anything outstanding or special in any manner. And yes, she can sing, but that wailing diva howling at the moon thing is more of a distraction than an asset, it sticks out like really bad Broadway/pseudo-operatic schlock, truth be told. Those dippy pseudo-cosmic lyrics weren’t much of a help either.

The new band overall kicked butt, especially Ralphe Armstrong and Narada Michael Walden, even if he does overplay a little now and then. I heard that MO Mark II were actually great on stage with just the 3 strings and 2 horns. It had to be a monumental challenge to capture the essence of the dense orchestral sections and be able to convey it with a much smaller (relatively speaking) ensemble.

John McLaughlin could certainly not be faulted for being exploratory and wildly ambitious, and he is in fact to be commended, even when it didn’t always fly. At least he learned from the mistakes.

In spite of the flaws, this is a disc definitely worth having, just to see how orchestral and electric textures can work together, and how one such as Johnny Mac always followed his musical heart wherever it took him, not having the least bit of concern for commerciality.

April 7, 2013 - Posted by | The Mahavishnu Orchestra Apocalypse | ,

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