Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

The Mahavishnu Orchestra Birds Of Fire (1973)

61+g6tcOc-LFrom amazon.com

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.

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January 26, 2014 - Posted by | The Mahavishnu Orchestra Birds Of Fire | ,

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