Inner Mounting Flame (Columbia ’71) Rating: A
After co-starring in some of Miles Davis’ groundbreaking late ‘60s albums, playing in Tony Williams’ Lifetime, and releasing some solo stuff, 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 sense of 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 this 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" (arguably 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 fast-paced 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 over forty years after this incendiary debut first dropped.
Birds Of Fire (Columbia ’72) Rating: A
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 some of 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 the good if 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.