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.
Hailed as the keystone band of the jazz-rock fusion movement, Mahavishnu Orchestra was arguably the most influential, and certainly one of the best jazz fusion group ever.
In 1971, creative leader and front figure John McLaughlin formed the group that achieved considerable success from the start. Mahavishnu Orchestra was a very powerful group, having the sophisticated improvisations of electic free-jazz. John made a name for himself while working with the famous trumpeter Miles Davis during his early explorations into electric instrumentation, which were the very first steps into the jazz-rock realm in the late 60’s. Like Return to Forever and Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra had the intention of further exploring the jazz-rock hybrid Miles Davis had explored.
The band was an instant sensation. Combining the improvisational elements of jazz with the high volume electrified rock sound that had been pioneered by Jimi Hendrix, the archetypal jazz-rock by Mahavishnu Orchestra was complex music performed by musicians whose virtuosity thrilled audiences and critics alike. The band had a firm grip on dynamics and was equally adept at dense, aggressive flights of musical intensity as they were at creating moments of impassioned, spiritual contemplation.
As internal tensions came to a boil after three influential albums (The Inner Mounting Flame, Birds of Fire and Between Nothingness and Eternity), the group disbanded at the end of 1973. McLaughlin quickly put together a new Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1974 that, despite the inclusion of electric violin virtuoso Jean-Luc Ponty, along with a host of excellent new supporting musicians, the band failed to catch on and broke up again by 1975, mainly due to McLaughlin’s growing interest in experimenting with different musical styles.
The two first versions of Mahavishnu Orchestra have not much in common in their compositional structures, but the chemistry within the band always remained at a white hot, as the band built and created a multi-expressive layer of colours and sounds in that intricate and complex method they were known for. Their first two quintessential albums feature a shred-fest of a very dazzling energetic and very powerful kind of free-jazz, wich was often played very fast and frantically by the five members alone, while in Visions of the Emerald Beyond, all those characteristics were clearly toned down. The album is more accessible, more refined and returns to more sober form of jazz-rock, consisting of shorter tracks.
The album was made to listen to it all in one shot, since many of the tunes are connected with others. It retains the same great spirit of their previous works, but does often fray into funk territory, which the band didn’t explore before. The scattered funk grooves freshen things up nicely, thanks to the versatility of both bassist Ralph Armstrong, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and the stunning drummer Michael Walden, whose playing contains the raw and explosive power of former drummer Billy Cobham.
The weakest spot, if there is one, is the keyboardist Gayle Moran. Her keys are used solely in the arrangements, and she is clearly outclassed by predecessor virtuoso Jan Hammer, who sounds very similar like Return to Forever mastermind Chick Corea. Hammer’s fiery and masterful keyboard duels with the band leader managed to set a standard that every subsequent jazz-rock fusion ensemble would strive to meet. McLaughlin’s guitar and Ponty’s violin are more predominant on here: they more or less share centre stage.
Their interplay is at a tremendous high, juxtaposed against the solid and hypnotic dual rhythm of Walden and Armstrong. The ecstatic opener Eternity’s Breath is a good example of that balanced harmony. McLaughlin’s blazing guitar work is often seen as pretentious and overblown, but in fact, his fluid technique and surcharged solo outings affirmed his standing as the dean of high decibel jazz-fusion. Overall, he’s the kind of guitarist who can add emotion and innovation to that highly technical, clinical style.
Mahavishnu Orchestra have been cited as a major influence on everyone from Frank Zappa to King Crimson (Fripp and McLaughlin were clearly kindred musical spirits) to Phish to The Mars Volta, and were in many ways one of the first electric jam bands, each member pushing the borders and creating this overwhelming intense music saturated in a complicit beauty. Visions of the Emerald Beyond shows this in prime form.
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.
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.
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.
Between Nothingness and Eternity was released in 1973 and proved to be the swansong of the first edition of The Mahavishnu Orchestra. While the band had produced two truly great studio albums previously, BNE was intended to showcase its legendary live performance. Disappointingly, this recording does not fully capture that experience. Despite that failing, the album remains a powerhouse of a recording and is a fitting testament to the driving force that was the original Mahavishnu Orchestra.
BNE was recorded live in NYC’s Central Park in 1973. (The stage was set up in an outdoor hockey rink, and tickets for the event cost a whopping two dollars!) The members of the Orchestra were not getting along at this time. In fact, parts of the studio version of this album, along with new tunes from Jerry Goodman and Rick Laird, were already in the can.
However, due to creative differences, the album was never finished. In 2000, some 26 years after the fact, Columbia finally released this incomplete album as The Lost Trident Sessions.
“Dream,” a long extended piece, is often cited as one of the best all-time Mahavishnu explorations. Extensive unison playing and a guitar-drum duel that very well may be the most exciting ever-put on record highlight this tune. McLaughlin and Billy Cobham may not have been getting along off stage, but they were damn telepathic on it.
Over the course of 25 minutes, “Dream” sounds lush and ferocious. At several points during this performance, you will feel the hairs on the back of your neck stiffen. “Dream” is all about tension and release.
“Trilogy” emphasizes the amazing interplay of the band. Much of this interaction runs through Jan Hammer, who was featuring his Moog synthesizer. Conversely, this is also the main weakness of the album. The problem is not contained in Hammer’s performance. He was in top form. But for some reason, the recording does not capture his sound in an entirely pleasing way. One can only guess that the recording equipment or the sound equipment on stage was not up to the task.
Simply put, there are passages in which Hammer can barely be heard! This is a very serious problem during the call and response sections. In fact, the overall sound quality of the album is not very good. We must remember that the Mahavishnu Orchestra played very loud and perhaps the technology at the time just couldn’t handle it. Some fans may actually enjoy the fact that the M.O. seemed to overpower it equipment; this is especially true of McLaughlin’s wailing and distorted guitar that over-modulates from time to time. It was as if no man made equipment could contain the energy produced by this band!
All in all, despite the obvious sound issues, BNE is a fine production. This album and The Lost Trident Sessions are a must-have in order to appreciate how the group fleshed out their compositions in concert.
The Lost Trident Sessions contains what was meant to be The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s third full-fledged studio album. They recorded this in 1973, but it wasn’t until 1999 when this was released. The story goes that the album was shelved and subsequently lost in the warehouses, and then somebody finally found it, remastered it, and released it.
This was also the last we would see of the classic line-up. McLaughlin formed an entirely new band, and turned Mahavishnu Orchestra into more of a classical music/prog outfit. They were still excellent of course, but that surely alienated much of their fan-base.
Although the material on this “lost” album was probably not a surprise to anyone considering most of it was subsequently released on their live album Between Nothingness and Eternity and Jerry Goodman’s and Jan Hammer’s Like Children. The only completely unreleased track was “John’s Song #2.” The one thing that I miss about this album compared to their earlier two is that it doesn’t contain a track that is quite as emotionally powerful as “The Meeting of the Spirits” or “Birds of Fire.”
But what The Lost Trident Sessions has is a whole lot of phenomenally entertaining and masterful jamming pieces. I’d even wager to say that this is the most wholly entertaining and accessible Mahavishnu Orchestra album ever released.
Take a whiff of “Sister Andrea.” Do you remember the Mahavishnu Orchestra writing such a catchy, bad-ass riff before? That’s like the Rolling Stones; I can listen to it over and over again and never grow tired of it! Seeing that this is the Mahavishnu Orchestra, there is quite a lot more to this song than the riff. It contains extended, sort of spaced-out solo movements, which of course are phenomenally interesting to listen to. “Trilogy” by all accounts is a typical wandering and rambly piece from them.
It starts out quietly and subdued guitar and keyboard solos weave in and out of crescendos while a disparate drum rhythm plays. But then one at one point, it almost seems to threaten to turn into a crunchy heavy metal anthem! They’re previous stuff never even hinted at heavy metal, so in all possibility, this might be the perfect place to begin listening to Mahavishnu Orchestra!
The one thing that this album has over the previous two Mahavishnu Orchestra albums is that there isn’t a single moment I’m bored with. For the most part, every quiet part seemed well deserved and they were masterfully and beautifully evolved loud and booming sections. They’re all interesting to hear develop, and as a listener I’m hanging onto everything. The last three tracks are by far the shortest; “I Wonder” and “Steppings Tones” are three minutes each.
Of course they don’t develop like their 10-minute tracks do, but each of them have their own distinct tones and textures. The former is a thunderous jam that’s based on a rather compelling Bach-like chord progression, and the later is brilliantly subdued and creepy with a particularly excellent violin theme.
The last track, “John’s Song #2” contains some of the wildest, tightest drumming that I’ve ever experienced in rock ‘n’ roll… I mean, just listen to the guy go at it! It’s like he’s trying to give his drum kit a slow death. Of course all the other soloists deliver their lightning-fast noodles with gusto, but I’d say it’s the drummer who steals the spotlight. And he didn’t need a full-fledged solo to give that to him, either! There’s another area The Lost Trident beats their first two albums. There are no stupid drum solos!
Anyone who lovesThe Inner Mountain Flame and Birds of Fire should without question own this album, too, since it completes the trilogy, and also because it is a fantastic jazz-fusion record in its own right. I’m sure that it’s one of the most completely dazzling instrumental rock albums ever released.
After co-starring in some of Miles Davis’ groundbreaking late ‘60s albums and playing in Tony Williams’ Lifetime, guitarist John McLaughlin hooked up with some of the finest fusion players around (Billy Cobham; drums, Rick Laird; bass, Jan Hammer; organ, Jerry Goodman; violin) and formed The Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Though somewhat forgotten by the masses, this band remains legendary to anyone with even a passing interest in jazz-based improvisation or guitar-based rock music.
Though each virtuoso player forcefully shines in creating a tapestry of otherworldly intensity, McLaughlin’s amazing chops can’t help but dominate, as he unleashes bursts of Hendrix-based guitar fury during a series of sizzling solos.
Whether shredding away or letting loose with blasts of soaring melodicism, McLaughlin’s jaw dropping technique is consistently astonishing. Each of these eight instrumentals are extended pieces (averaging 6 minutes in length) that often rock furiously, but whose improvisational essence is equally rooted in jazz idioms; for two albums The Mahavishnu Orchestra worked this uneasy balance as good as anybody ever has.
Actually, Indian and classical music influences are also in evidence, as the band’s melting pot of styles (which in truth will appeal more to fans of prog rock bands like Yes and King Crimson – both of whom Mahavishnu inspired – than to hardcore jazz buffs) was truly unique and hard to categorize.
Complex and challenging, hard rocking and raw yet also beautiful and imbued with a deep spirituality, it is the band’s superior musicianship that makes the biggest impression. Not that McLaughlin (the sole songwriter) didn’t write some fine songs, mind you, nor did the band sacrifice soul for flash. However, the atmospheric songs merely provided the framework for the band’s brilliant playing.
Often it is Goodman’s violin that provides the album’s otherworldly ambiance, while Cobham’s oddly metered rhythms charge forward with a relentless intensity and an assured attention to detail. Hammer and especially Laird are more support players, but each added essential contributions as well (indeed, Hammer would become something of a fusion star outside of Mahavishnu).
Motifs and melodies are repeated throughout the album, giving it a cohesiveness that is only revealed gradually through repeat listens. Whether on the monumental leadoff track, “The Meeting Of The Spririts,” where McLaughlin’s wailing guitar battles waves of layered violins amid a chaotic rhythmic clatter, or on the lovely “A Lotus On Irish Streams,” a pastoral piano/violin/guitar piece, the album is always impressively well rounded. Be forewarned, however, that this is not easy listening by any means.
Even the relatively mellow “You Know You Know” (the album’s weakest song) has some jagged bursts of atonality, while the frentic “Vital Transformation,” on which Cobham shines, and the surprisingly bluesy “The Dance Of Maya,” are dissonant jam sessions.
Elsewhere, “Dawn” is a soulful softer number that still shreds at times, “The Noonward Race” races forward on a fiery Goodman-led groove, and “Awakening” likewise hurtles ahead with a reckless abandon. Some of these songs may leave you gasping for air, but they’ll likely leave you feeling thrilled as well, for this band can still shock and awe forty years after this incendiary debut first dropped.
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!!