The original King Crimson band– Robert Fripp (guitar), Ian McDonald (keys, reeds, vocals), Michael Giles (drum kit, backing vocals), Greg Lake (bass, vocals), and Peter Sinfield (lyrics) was a group positioned to do something great– when Ian McDonald joined Giles, Giles & Fripp (an off kilter pop band and the prototype for King Crimson), and eventually the arrival of vocalist Greg Lake, the band’s former pop sensibilities were largely replaced by a neoclassical form and a love for improv. The only resulting document of this group in the studio is this album.
I’m going to briefly jump into the sound before talking about the music– if you’re not interested, skip to the next paragraph. Fripp has remastered the album for what seems like the millionth time– this time from the original session tapes. The result is stunning– there’s a clarity here not present on previous editions, the production seems to have slightly changed, Lake often sounds like he’s singing right in your ear, the vocal harmonies, always for me one of the things that separated this album from similar achievements (the stunning playing of Fripp and Giles being the other) are clear and distinct. And for an album of dynamic, it has long gone without any clear hearing– “Moonchild”, which often sounded like unfocused tinkling, finally sounds coherent on record. From a sonic standpoint, this is finally the treatment the record deserves.
The music is this album is breathtaking– the sound is in some ways very 1969– mellotrons abound, lead playing splits between reeds and guitars, and a unique, high tuned drum sound, but there’s a certain timeless quality to some of the tracks that make it stand out, even when seeped in the technology of the time. The album’s opener, “21st Century Schizoid Man”, is the closest thing to a hit the band had– a group composition, the song opens with a whisper, mellotron effects, before exploding into power chord guitar and wailing sax– Lake’s voice, never a favorite of mine, takes a powerful and harsh edge and runs through two verses before the song breaks into a syncopated rhythm over which McDonald (on sax) and Fripp both take brilliant solos before coming back around to the verse again. By the time this ended for the first time, I was hooked. The level of playing on here, in particular hearing the four musicians playing complex lines in unison, will grab hold of anyone. Combine that with a great metal hook, and you’ve got something in many ways overwhelming.
The following track, “I Talk to the Wind”, is quite the opposite– delicate, with quiet guitars, reeds, a brilliant flute solo, and soft harmonies, makes you realize this band is not a one trick pony. This may be the finest lead vocal Lake has ever sung– he sounds relaxed, confident, and without that air of pretension that so often dominates his singing. Again, simply breathtaking, but in its own way. Skipping ahead a bit to “Moonchild”, the first two minutes are similar– quiet musical performance and a great lead vocal from Lake before meandering into an extended guitar, vibes and drums improv. While the trio improv is a bit overlong, it does (at least on this edition, not nearly as well on previous ones), work without having a feeling of draggin.
The other two tracks on the album are really the only ones that lack a timeless quality, largely in part because they’re dominated by the lush mellotron strings that clearly point to their era. “Epitaph” is probably my least favorite track on the album, dark, building, boiling, with some great guitar work from Fripp, I find it (and to a lesser extent the album closer) marred by Lake’s overblown vocal delivery. The album closer, again dominated by the string sounds and Lake’s vocal, is also washed in vocal harmonies, features a really incredible reed bridge, and some great distorted guitar interplaying with the mellotron– while it feels dated, its one of those period pieces whose performance is so brilliant and whose composition is so strong, it gets past its sound.
The album was one of a kind– while Crimson would continue and produce many stunning albums, McDonald and Giles abdicated leaving Fripp to continue. This is an effort that would never be repeated– it also, unfortunately, established King Crimson as a progressive rock band, a sound that, by the mid-70s, they largely abandoned, and by the 80s, they totally turned their back on. Nonetheless, its a great record, and definitely should be heard.
The Mahavishnu Orchestra are widely known for breaking new ground in the world of popular music. They (unsurprisingly) upset many jazz purists (one of them would be musician Wynton Marsalis), while conversely, offering new ways of looking at jazz.
This band may have been responsible for helping listeners (particularly of the younger crowd) ease their way into works of “pure” (for lack of a better term) jazz, but saying that largely undermines the integrity and musical power that The Mahavishnu Orchestra possessed. So to be more specific, this band may have helped broaden the appreciation of jazz, especially to a younger audience, while also (and more importantly) blowing the minds of many with their own dazzling musicianship.
Led by guitar virtuoso John McLaughlin, the Mahavishnu Orchestra specialized in blending rock with elements of jazz, Eastern, R&B, classical, country and other elements to form an indescribable brand of music. Not only that, every musician in this band were virtuosos, so the band were not without exhibiting feverish flights of aggression and intensity. However, this band were one of the rare breed of virtuosos who displayed a sense of taste, passion and fluidity in their virtuosic displays, and could rarely be criticized for dryness, or exhibiting nothing more than virtuosic chops all by itself. Another gift this band seemed to possess was a certain accessibility to their music — it was complex and technical, yet, it could be very addictive, and utterly inviting.
These tracks (which were all composed by John McLaughlin) all seem to be exercises in spirituality. Birds are creatures that fly – they seem to soar above everything. Fire = passion, inspiration, stamina, energy – a life-affirming source. This is transcendent, high-energy music played with soul, passion and purpose. The title track features a main lick, which gives off a slightly ominous, but penetratingly regal sound, while drummer Billy Cobham’s crash cymbal seems to add a bit more atmospheric relevance to it’s ever-present mystical aura. This main lick is in an astounding 18/8 time signature (but is really a set of 9/8, played twice), and features McLaughlin (guitar) and violinist Jerry Goodman dueling to the point where the two respective instruments sound indistinguishable–the two seem to become one.
On a personal note: I’ve listened to this one track on repeat for two hours straight, and I could have easily kept it on repeat — it was THAT addicting. Funky numbers like “Celestial Terrestrial Commuters” groove in 19/16, but still remain tasteful and addicting. The band softens things up with tracks like “Thousand Island Park” and “Hope.” The former sounding like an unconventional cross between Indian classical and folk-country music (very hard to describe), which is very beautiful and soothing, though it isn’t without some lightning-fast soloing. The latter sounding like a mix of Oriental, classical and instrumental ballad.
On “One Word,” the band really lets loose with a forbidding and frightening fire that will send many running for cover. For the majority of the first half, the band seems to play in a straightforward R&B-rock jam: John uses the wah-wah (or what I call the ‘wow-wow’) pedal to tasty effect, and bassist Rick Laird lays down some solid grooves underneath it all, and later, the rest of the musicians trade licks with one another on their respective instruments. The second half is where it gets more intense, as tension is built from drummer Billy Cobham, as he gets a solo spot. Here, he exhibits his drumming skills, which start off smoothly, then escalate in speed and dynamics.
Upon hearing this, you know to expect some sort of explosion ahead. Then, John McLaughlin (and band) kick in with a 13/8 meter, and for the rest of the song, this 13-rhythm continually increases in speed to reach a hair-raising climax. Within this 13-rhythm, closer inspection will reveal an almost mathematical technique in McLaughlin’s guitar line: a 6-5-4-3-2; 6 strokes/notes on the first line, 5 on the second, 4 on the third, 3 on the fourth and 2 on the fifth. McLaughlin is basically blazing and zigzagging on a pentatonic minor scale, and you will find McLaughlin, Jerry Goodman (on the violin) and Jan Hammer (synth/keyboard)–not to mention Billy Cobham pounding out this 6-5-4-3-2 pattern on the snare–playing this exact motif in unison, while Rick Laird is anchoring this spiritually cathartic flame with an utterly tense bassline to produce something so beautiful, divine, searing, orgasmic and powerfully devastating: it is my absolute favorite moment out of the entire (original) Mahavishnu Orchestra catalog.
Much of the album is hard to describe in mere words, so this review is pretty much over. This album is recommended to all rock music fans, particularly if you’re a fan of Hendrix or King Crimson. Prog-rock fans will probably love it, and they may find it to fall closer to that category, than it does pure jazz. If you’re new to the Mahavishnu Orchestra, this is probably the best place to start, then pick up 1971’s INNER MOUNTING FLAME.