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.
After appearing on Miles Davis’ landmark opus Bitches Brew, the 30-year-old British-born guitar wizard known as Mahavishnu John McLaughlin birthed his own band and christened it The Mahavishnu Orchestra. His quintet featured virtuoso instrumentalists, each hailing from a different country, each applying his uniquely flavored and unquestionable means towards an end of jazz-fusion nirvana.
Birds of Fire, the band’s sophomore effort and gong-heralded opening track knocked the crap out of everyone daring enough to turn on to it in 1973.
How much has the world changed since then? Forget the muttonchops and flared pants legs, they’re more than likely on the way back in these days, this album actually charted in a big way. Come on folks, we’re talking about daring (with a capital D) music making a large noise on the Billboard album chart. You don’t think that’s strange? A quick peek at the current top 50 albums will make your head spin. Check it for yourself, Billboard.com, but have your Dramamine handy and don’t say I didn’t warn you.
In 1973, this ultra challenging hard rock/jazz fusion exploration began an 11-week stay on the Billboard chart and fully ripened at number 15. Today’s number 15 album? That would be Shaggy’s Hotshot. Glad you took the Dramamine now?
Okay. The times were different. The early ‘70s were ushering in an era of arena rock and the audiences were ripe for a group of virtuosos able to take stage and whim out a multitude of breath taking musical influences often at sound barrier threatening volumes. Exactly why this isn’t appreciated now is beyond me.
Oh yeah, I know what you’re thinking: “He grew up in the ‘70s, this was HIS music and now he’s trying to force it on us because he’s either unwilling or unable to adapt to the changes of the field he professes to be fairly coherent in.” To which I reply: “Uh, have you listened to Shaggy?” Actually, you’d be wrong. I came of age in a magical era baby, when a young man could ride a giddy hook, a Flock of Seagulls hairdo and a 35 dollar Casio keyboard into the top 40. The 1980s.
The Mahavishnu Orchestra is hell and gone from ‘80s goof. This was a group of players who were masters of their prospective instruments. Right, now you’re thinking: “This is music to be appreciated more so than listened to. The only people deriving pleasure from this album are the theory dipped music geeks capable of hearing their microwave’s done signal and telling you what key it’s in.”
Okay, it’s fairly complicated stuff; I’ll let you have that one. Still, we’re talking about a band with an electric pulse and a heart with at least two of its four chambers pumping blood of the rock and roll variety. This will appeal to anyone eager to open their mind and expand their musical horizons.
Twenty seven years later this digitally remastered album is as vibrant and demanding as ever. John’s playing, be it Teddy Bear tender or perilously abrasive, fits nicely amidst the controlled den created by Billy Cobham’s assault on the skins and Jan Hammer’s synthesized acrobatics. Jerry Goodman’s violin provides a bit of a Dixie Dregs type vibe at times, while the slower tempo ditties offer more than a morsel of a Bela Fleck and the Flecktones type feel. Still, both those bands are alive and kicking out great music that’s all but going unnoticed by the general music consumer.
I suppose the only mega-popular band around today that somewhat incorporates the fusion aesthetic into its art is the Dave Matthews Band. So let’s put it this way: Mahavishnu was a peyote fueled Dave Matthews Band, sans vocals, with 20 times the talent and influences plus a baddass seventies tube-amp swagger.
It’s tough to bottle lightning once, and this band did it twice. Dispensing more otherworldly magic, Birds Of Fire doesn’t build on its predecessor so much as it continues their dazzling group interplay. Perhaps it lacks the freshness of Inner Mounting Flame, but that’s primarily because that album came first, and this one in fact is probably a better example of the “fusion” term that the band is so closely identified with.
Indeed, there are more sections that could be called “jazz” and less fretboard frying hard rock on this one (perhaps that’s why I slightly prefer the debut), as McLaughlin (who again wrote every song) even dedicates a song (“Miles Beyond”) to mentor Miles Davis. Other differences between the two albums are that the songs here (aside from the ten minute long “One Word”) are generally shorter, while Hammer has a more pronounced role as he adds more modern electric keyboards and synthesizer sounds (check out his trombone impersonation on “Celestial Terrestrial Commuters”!).
As for the songs, the title track begins the proceedings and is almost as mind blowing as “Meeting Of The Spirits.” One listen to this and it’s easy to see why this band was so influential back in their day, and why they were so popular among rock audiences. Elsewhere, “Sapphire Bullets Of Pure Love” (is it me, or are some of these song titles sorta silly?) shows McLaughlin to be an amazing acoustic guitar player as well, in case you had any doubts, while “Hope” is a short, mellower piece that nevertheless showcases the band’s tightly controlled rhythm section.
The album’s centerpiece song, “One Word,” then follows, and it’s arguably the most important song of the original band’s brief but bright career together. A largely improvised epic, the rhythm section quickly settles into a low-key groove before Rick Laird takes control with a rare bass solo. Each player eventually chimes in, at times interrupting each other as they all go for broke, before Cobham is spotlighted for a 2-minute drum solo (that’s actually not boring), after which they all join in again at the end. A well thought through follow up after that exhausting exercise, “Sanctuary” continues onward with a slow, mournful melody, led along by Goodman’s moody violin.
Finally, “Open Country Joy” takes a minute to get going but again brings forth plenty of guitar flash from McLaughlin, before the band smartly comes down again with “Resolution,” which provides a short, low-key conclusion to another classic album. Alas, they couldn’t keep it up, as ego clashes and “musical differences” splintered the band apart soon after the release of this second milestone offering, though they released another less impressive live album (Between Nothingness and Eternity) in 1973 and a belated third studio album would surface in 1999 (The Lost Trident Sessions).
Though McLaughlin would recruit new members and continue to do good work under the Mahavishnu name (while also pursuing a solo career), it is the original lineup that deserves to be long remembered, because for two albums they were the best fusion band ever.
Formed in 1970 by McLaughlin, per recommendation by Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra was the first truly Jazz-Rock group. They combined Indian Rythms with Jazz, complete with blazing riffage and insane soloing.
Here is a track by track analysis of Mahavishnu’s groundbreaking album Birds Of Fire.
Although 1971’s Inner Mounting Flame was possibly more controversial, by Birds Of Fire, Mahavishnu had honed themselves into a much more incindiary group, truly Birds Of Fire(s). 15 weeks on the charts followed, as well as grammy nominations.
Birds Of Fire
The album’s first and title track, this song wails. Starts out with a basic riff in 9/8, then culminates early with McLaughlin and Goodman doubling up on the incindiary riff that’s the back bone of the song. Blazing solos follow, with a completion after 5 minutes of jaw-dropping musicianship. This song gives a feeling of soaring and possibly never ever playing guitar again because it’s just not fair that McLaughlin’s THAT good.
This second track starts with an almost In A Silent Way vibe (hence the title), but it’s a serious jam song. It’s one of the strongest on the album, shown as soon as Goodman’s riffage comes in. As repeated countless times on this album, McLaughlin’s compositional skill is enviable, and his ability to overlap parts in conflicting times is absolutely mind-boggiling.
Celestial Terrestial Commuters
By far the albums most flashy song, it’s in 19/8 time. The is one of those songs that’s so amazingly technical that it’s simply difficult to listen to, because it’s just so hard to tell what the fuck McLaughlin and company are doing. This song is sonic embroidery, something that members of Mesugga, Dream Theater and Planet X have obviously listened to obsessively. This song starts with the “basic” groove, which really isn’t very basic at all, and climaxes in an incredible trading off between McLaughlin and Goodman of riffs.
Sapphire Bullets Of Pure Love
Although at first listen this song is nothing but white noise, it’s actually McLaughlin’s first experimentation with a guitar synthesizer. That being said, it’s really not that exciting. Interesting, but not fantastic. A decent filler though, but it’s the albums only downside.
Thousand Island Park
The prettiest thing Mahavishnu ever did, this song, despite the exterior shell of almost cheesy diatonic beauty, is insanely technical. McLaughlin’s finger style gives DiMeola a raping. Not my favorite song on the album, but it’s really good. Very flowing, almost lyrical, despite the instrumental nature.
Surreal is the best word for this track. Synthesizer with violin and finger style guitar, with plenty of cymbal crashes make this an extremely successful song. Abosluetly nothing wrong with it, but it’s not the strongest song on the album.
Hands down the strongest song on the album. Starts off with just a simple bass lines, but launches into something best described as epic. Over a truly driving riff, each member of the band takes a solo. Goodman simply shreds, making the listener think that nothing could show it up. Then comes Cobham and Laird, and well, all I can say is that Cobham is one of the best drummers ever. He’s simply insane. Laird is no Jaco, but he’s a seriously solid bassist, and can lay down a mean solo. Then comes McLaughlin and all I can say is “wow”. He starts, time and time again, a soulful, firey riff that builds to such speed at such a rapid pace, and then continues to build, and continues, and finally finishes in something that makes Steve Vai look like a fool. Finally, the whole band joins back in, and culminates this seriously fiery song.
Eeire. Strange. Out. But very very very soulful. This is a song to put in the category of “That’s the Way” (Zeppelin) and “Behind Blue Eyes” (The Who) as a soft song on a rocking album that’s almost more moving than any solo-fest or groove-fest. It’s an amazing song, with a huge amount of emotion. McLaughlin’s composition shines through again.
Open Country Joy
Lives up to it’s name. It’s a free song, a firey song, and a real “Birds Of Fire” song. It’s a groove, but we see the side that McLaughlin and Goodman have been hiding until now. The more Hendrix or Gilmour side, of much more free soloing. Really letting out the gain, and holding bends and playing some seriously soulful stuff. Starts out as an almost country-oriented song, but then the incindiary soloing comes in. Another classic.
Slightly slower, but it really shines. It’s definitely a resolution to this album, and has more of a feel of the soon to come Last Trident Sessions.
This album speaks for itself. It’s truly great. I can’t even begin to explain the effect this music has had on me. Get your hands on it!!