on October 31, 2003
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 mystical aura. This main lick in an assumed 9/8 meter 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.
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. That pattern is repeated throughout.
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, since it seems 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.
on March 28, 2002
If you are reading these words, it is because you have at least some interest in so-called "fusion" music, or "jazz-rock." If you are under the age of 30, let me assure you, your perspective on this genre is going to be a lot different than mine. I'll be 45 this summer. I went through my adolescence and musical awakening during one of the most fertile and amazing periods of popular music, the 1970s. Ironically, the 70s were widely denigrated during the 80s, but if you think about it, everything happened in the 70s, and very little new since--with the possible exception of hip-hop. Consider: country-rock, heavy metal, glam-rock, acid-rock, progressive-rock, classical-rock, jazz-rock, euro-pop, disco, rap, punk, new wave, electronic--you name it, it happened in the 1970s. The Sex Pistols released 'God Save The Queen' on my birthday in 1976, and it still sounds great.
Now, you may think it odd that someone who likes the Sex Pistols would also like 'Birds Of Fire.' That's your problem. I'm also partial to Patsy Cline, Bad Religion, and Charlie Parker. The point is, if you can't recognize the greatness of a certain work of art or music, it's probably because your mind is insufficently prepared to take it in.
'Birds Of Fire,' is quite simply one of the greatest albums ever made. It is the very definition of originality, creativity, musicianship, and passion. Put aside your preconceptions, open your mind and ears, and discover a level of talent that is unlikely to reappear in your lifetime. I know I'm still waiting.
on May 15, 2002
OK. If you've drowned in everything that's happened since this CD was made - meaning you're jaded - you won't like it. Tough. Sorry. (NOTE: That statement was really judgemental and snotty. I take it back... kinda. It was a joke... sorta.)
I will say this... to date, I have purchase approximately 10 copies of this work. I've given them away, lost them, etc. I still have to hear the thing. I'm not going to try to 'consolidate' all the reasons this is an amazing CD, it wouldn't matter anyway... but off the top, here is why I love this thing:
> Absolute raging passion. At the expense of notes. Never at the expense of musicianship or cohesion. (Unfortunately it's no longer common to view technical perfection seperately from clarity of thought - save in the case of 'roots' music.)
> Musicians who HEAR each other. Even when they don't UNDERSTAND each other... they have the guts to follow where they're each going.
> If you want to understand why drums are so important in a band, listen closely to 'Celestial Terrestrial Commuters' until you feel the heat (this may take a while). Now, try to extract the drum part in your head. Try to imagine the piece without EXACTLY that drum part. In fact, try to imagine the piece without the AMAZING first 6 seconds played by Cobham to introduce the piece. If you can, I contend that you're lying to yourself, or that you're a true genius, or that you can't really tell the difference between this and a Monkees re-release.
> The way in which McLaughlin coaxes the band to play in sympathy with each other, without playing ON TOP OF each other. This is a common argument for 'lack of focus' on this album - that melodic lines played by 2 instruments simultaneously aren't 'in sync.' I say: 'GET YOUR HEAD OUT OF THE SOFTWARE." He plays those lines like that for a reason. He could play dead on if he cared to. If you're willing to listen closely, you will hear a conversation in a single line. This is NOT easy to accomplish, even once you get the concept.
> The CD IS a 'bunch of ideas.' This is sometimes stated as a horrible flaw in this work. I say: 'it is a HUGE part of what makes this thing NOT a 'concept' album, which so much of the related and copycat works that followed became. It is ideas held together with sinew, and therefore very, very human. The ideas weaken and solidify like real human ideas, rather than something distilled in the mind of a sound engineer (and I love sound engineers).
That's my defense. Terribly off the cuff for something I've listened to so many times over so many years. But then, that's part of what I love about this piece of work - it's still so immediate and off the cuff in its brilliance and intensity after all this time...
on February 22, 2004
this is one of the best cds i have ever gotten. i love milesdavis when mclaughlin was with him, so i looked up mclaughlins stuff. i found mahavishnu orchestra and listened to the clips and read the reviews for it. i am currently listening to it and it is great. it is even better than i expected it to be, and i expected it to be a five star to me.
Now i need to get intermounting flame. someone who made a review said the remastered was crappy, but that is the one i got and i am blown away by it. if you have heard jeff beck's Wired, or Blow by Blow, this is like it but way heavier and better, even though i love Wired and Blow by Blow. I heard some of Shakt with Mclaughlin, dont get it, this is much heavier and energetic.
on March 25, 2002
One of the ultimate achievements of the fusion genre, "Birds of Fire" features soaring, blazing riffs from John McLaughlin on guitar, Jerry Goodman on violin and Jan Hammer on synth, all grounded by the thunderous drumming of Billy Colbham and Rick Laird's sinuous bass. Combining the melodic sensibility and improvisational fluidity of jazz with the frenetic intensity of rock, the band creates some of the most exciting music ever recorded. The best tracks feature guitar and violin playing dual leads in front of Hammer's electric piano, then suddenly explode into a barrage of improvisational fireworks. The lead instruments trade licks at a dizzying pace, and every solo is a madcap journey into the upper stratosphere. The eastern-influenced title track is probably best, although "One Word" is absolutely incredible despite the lackluster double bass drum solo from Colbham (his least interesting work on the album). Almost as powerful are "Celestial Terrestrial Commuters" (on which Hammer uses a particularly ballsy synth sound), the looser, slightly bluesy "Miles Beyond" (with upward bending punches a la Miles Davis), and the exquisite "Open Country Joy" to which McLaughlin's finger picking and Goodman's fiddle-type runs lend a folksy feel until, after a long tease, the rhythm section comes back in with a driving, funky beat.
Of course, just as a continual scream would quickly become unbearable, there is an undeniable need for some quieter moments. "Thousand Island Park" is a staid, plodding acoustic number, despite some twittering lead licks, and "Sanctuary" is almost funereal. It's a little much to say that these are bad tracks; this reviewer finds them a welcome respite after flying around the room for ten minutes, but admittedly, an album comprised entirely of such material would be a colossal bore. Also included are three very short tracks - one of which, "Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love", may be the mystical Brit's idea of humor. The other two, "Hope" and "Resolution", seem to be experiments in minimalism; they both capture the named emotions very convincingly, but neither of these compositions is likely to be anyone's favorite.
Mahavishnu's music combines a ferocious energy with a mystical, one might say, spiritual, sensibility, but this is by no means a safe, relaxing kind of album. Even fans of the genre may not love every single track, but overall, this is a musical experience of the highest order and an absolute must-have album for jazz guitarists as well as electric jazz musicians.
on October 5, 2001
Whoever says that this album sucks apparently didn't spend too much time listening to it. All of the musicians play with an intensity that I have heard nowhere else. Was "Inner Mounting Flame" more intense? Yes, but the music on that album had a much darker feel than on this album, so the band needed to generate a more ferocious sound. Frankly, I think the JAZZ on this album is more open to repeat listenings than IMF. I could hit repeat on the title track and let it run all day and not get tired of it. Jerry Goodman's violin solo in that song (and it took me quite a while to realize that it was a violin in the second solo section) blows me away every time! Billy Cobham is simply the best fusion drummer there is. It's a shame that he was never able to duplicate the musical success of "Spectrum" in the rest of his fusion catalog. Jan Hammer was an awesome keyboardist (note the "was"). Rick Laird, well, when he laid into a groove, he wasn't moving for anything; wonder what he's done since Mahavishnu! And there's nothing anyone can say about John McLaughlin. As a guitarist myself, I can tell you: this man is beyond all definition and comparison. Over the years, he has made complete 180 degree turns in his style that he just refuses to be pigeonholed. If I could play with just one quarter of his talent, I would...well, I don't know what I'd do, but a be a pretty freakin' good guitarist!
And all I'm talking about is the FIRST SONG on the album. You still have 9 more tracks to go!
on February 17, 2001
I just listened to both "Birds of Fire" and "The Inner Mounting Flame" back-to-back. I hadn't listened to them for awhile. I bought orginal copies on vinyl close to thirty years ago (that long? wow!!!) Needless to say, I love both albums.
Some observations- If you're a Mahavishnu novice, I suggest listening to "Birds of Fire" first. The pieces are shorter and easier to digest. However, it may take some time to tell which instrument is playing and who's soloing. The guitar, violin, and synth trade fours with abandon, are similarly processed, and all solo instruments bend notes (thanks to the Moog's pitch-wheel). Billy Cobham added a second bass-drum and extra tom-toms on "Birds of Fire". His classic style is more defined.
I really don't prefer one album over the other. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. "The Inner Mounting Flame" seems more jazz-oriented. Pieces are longer, solos are longer, and the recording allows a listener to tell one instrument/player from another with ease. "Birds of Fire" is more rock-oriented. Pieces are shorter (as I mentioned above), solos are more electronically processed, and many pieces have no solos at all ("Hope" and "Resolution," for example, which seem like sketches). It seems appropriate that the only "official" studio albums by the original (well, the only legitimate, in my opinion) version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra have incendiary titles ("...Flame" and "...Fire"). The intensity of this music, as well as the demands of playing this music live night-after-night, easily had to take its toll on the musicians. After three-odd years the group burned itself out! There will never be another Mahavishnu Orchestra. These two albums need to be respectfully treasured for the works of great art which they are. They epitomize the best jazz-rock (or rock-jazz, if you're a label buff) ever put on disc. In hindsight, the Mahavishnu Orchestra was wise to disband before they committed the cardinal sins of fusion (the movement they started, but transcended)- repetition and predictability!!!
on December 18, 2000
I wish reviewers would quit apologizing for preferring "Birds of Fire" to "The Inner Mounting Flame". Some remember "The Inner Mounting Flame" more fondly only because it came first--historical happenstance. Compositionally, "Birds of Fire" is a development from and an improvement on "The Inner Mounting Flame".
1) "Hope"'s arpeggio pattern is obviously based on "The Dance of Maya"'s. Whereas "The Dance of Maya" stoops to repeating redundantly a chord member to fill out its 10/8 meter, "Hope"'s 7/4 meter is completely natural and convincing.
2) "Thousand Island Park" is obviously based on "A Lotus On Irish Streams". Whereas "A Lotus On Irish Streams" depends on improvisation to breathe life into a sketchy and harmonically conventional compositional fragment, "Thousand Island Park" is a remarkable composition in its own right.
3) "Birds of Fire" is obviously based on "Meeting of the Spirits". Whereas in "Meeting of the Spirits" polymodality and polyrhythm are only--more or less--intimated, in "Birds of Fire" they are fulling worked out and impressive.
In fact, quite a bit of "The Inner Mounting Flame" is compositionally tentative. In "Birds of Fire" only "One Word" is. ("One Word" is Billy Cobham's vehicle, so I suppose I can't really fault. By the bye, on this cut Jack Bruce--not credited on the original sleeve--replaces bassist Rick Laird.) But don't get me wrong: "The Inner Mounting Flame" is GREAT, and "Noonward Race" rocks harder than anything on "Birds of Fire".
Also recommended: Mahavishnu Orchestra: "The Inner Mounting Flame", Shakti: "Natural Elements".
on December 14, 2000
It's hard to say enough about this Mahavishnu-album...John McLauglin pays his dues. It is no coincidence that the second track is "Miles Beyond," which can only be a tribute to, not just a cover of, the master. Like a lot of Mahavishnu-fans (I guess), I have backtracked from this album to McLaughlin's earlier work, and of course you end up at the beginning: Davis' "In A Silent Way." And really, it's quite a shock if you're used to the million-notes-a-measure tempo of the Orchestra to go back to that seemingly so calm stuff--but listen to it again, and you'll find it's not that calm. But I'm digressing.
I care about McLaughlin's paying his dues, because all too often he has been downed as an egocentric player who just plays fast, not deep. Be that as it may, on this album he shows you how fast can be deep. But has anyone ever commented on him as a rhythm-player? Check out "One Word," and listen to him rock it up behind Rick Laird's long melodic solo--at 3'56" he'll show you where it's at.
All of these musicians are the best of the best, no doubt about it. For sentimental purposes (I played keyboards in the early 80s), I'll have you know that no one played on a Fender Rhodes or a Mini Moog as sexy as Jan Hammer did (sorry Chick Corea--you're great but you're not sexy...).
In short, this is the ultimate jazz-rock album. You won't be disappointed.
on February 18, 2002
I loved The Inner Mounting Flame and was looking to find the next step in the evolution of Mahavishnu. I found that in Birds of Fire, but unfortunately, I don't really like where it headed. Overall, the music in this album seems really unfocused, like they had a few good ideas and just threw them all together onto an album, but didn't really feel like taking the time to develop them to their potential. The title track is excellent though, almost makes the whole album worth it. "Hope" sounded like a good theme that they just couldn't find any use for, so they just repeated it a bunch of times and made it a track. Everything else comes across a bit droning and fails to keep my attention. The three stars are for the display of musicianship that the band never fails to get across; the lack of five stars is because the band just doesn't seem to be working together on this album. Give it a shot, if you want, you might pull out more from this album than I did.