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Mahavishnu Orchestra - Birds Of Fire CD (album) cover

BIRDS OF FIRE

Mahavishnu Orchestra

 

Jazz Rock/Fusion

4.36 | 872 ratings

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TGM: Orb
Prog Reviewer
3 stars Birds Of Fire, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, 1973

How you judge two albums like The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds Of Fire against each other is, for budding rock critics like me, a conundrum. OK, I like the former a bit more, and guess I have done for a while, but the exact comparisons escaped me for a while. Well, here we go: It's stronger in that McLaughlin has pulled his guitar ideas together into a more compact form, Jan Hammer has moved onto to Moog as well as e-piano, and the band's a bit more unpredictable. Where it suffers in comparison is that it's more of a jazz/rock record and less of an art one: for the clever and classy puzzle content of pieces like Dawn or The Dance Of Maya we just get more fun, often novel and always well-played jazz/rock material (and the track order is baffling sometimes). So, the preference goes, I think, by listener. If you love twisted e-piano and completed the original monkey island with no reference to internet advice at all, I'd start with the former, if you think you're just looking for great jazz/rock with a bit of moog thrown in, this is the cookie. I'm a synthesis of the two, so, really, I can say that The Inner Mounting Flame is my favourite, but this one really deserves no less than the same rating, if I'm working as objectively as I can.

Cobham's gong (I think; don't trust the non-drummer writing this review) crashes are the album's statement of intent, heady, mystic sounds from under which McLaughlin's twisted, distorted, reverent guitar creeps, and Jerry Goodman launches his serpentine violin assault, before Cobham single-handedly redoubles the pace with his blistering percussion work and choice fills, and McLaughlin launches into a rare state of electric-heroism, played off by Goodman's twisting violins and a brief funk-gelled interlude featuring Hammer's first effective moog entrance and a fantastic Laird bassline, and now Goodman's serpentine theme returns; the denouement was but an illusion, and the band is now an altogether, all barrels firing, broadside of insane musicality and mood without ever losing touch with a classy structure and main theme, escalating the explosive Birds Of Fire into their self-destructive disappearance. Eh, a fade is admittedly almost a disappointment at the end of it, but it fits the title's connotations, and I really can't complain after they've given us such a mind-blowing opener.

Miles Beyond, a tribute to the great Miles Davis, offers us something quite different, a quietly upbeat electric piano introduction and a subtle McLaughlin guitar noise playing off against it, before Laird pulls off one of his cleverest bass performances, setting us up for a thick block-bass explosion, Jerry Goodman putting out a near-country flavoured part to which McLaughlin attaches a tantalising little tail and from which McLaughlin's able to pull out the weirdest miniscule picked interplay with Hammer's main theme. I mean, this is a guitar-performance and a half, electric shredwork predicted by delicate, tingling acoustics, but with no sense of it at the time; Jan Hammer is the ideal prop for the piece, Cobham's drumming is an ideal mix of touch and fire. Again, an example of the sort of piece that shows the Mahavishnu Orchestra's talent ? not only as near-unparalleled players, but also as thoughtful arrangers and intelligent musicians.

Celestial Terrestrial Commuters gives us a bit of a break from the clever back-thought, and that's good too. Variety never hurt anyone. Anyway, the main theme, a roaring McLaughlin guitar part, is the most memorable riff I've yet to hear from the MO (and as a Brubeck fan, I've increasingly come to think that sort of melodic sensibility, even in jazz, is crucial to creating good stuff), and the solos, Jan Hammer on a brass-like moog (he really uses the non-fixed nature of the instrument to good effect in the relationship between his first obvious solo and his second more subtle one ? it's different somehow, the same base sound, but it's certainly not the same actual sound), McLaughlin's twisty guitar runs and Jerry Goodman's snaking violin entwined together in a sort of adjectival overload, and all the while a rhythm section with Rick Laird's calm reserve and Billy Cobham's full I AM A DRUMMER attitude coming into play. I mean, as I said, this piece isn't maybe as subtly clever as the previous couple appear to be, but there's a lot of thought clearly going into the way the solos work together, the main theme is great, the solos are great. What else do you need for a great song?

Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love is a twenty-second flash of moog underpinned with various guitar, bass and violin feedback. Pure weird as an inclusion ? maybe just offering Hammer somewhere to show off his skills without the pretence of musical relevance, and it sort of leads nicely to the subdued Thousand Island Park, but really a novelty piece like this was not meant to be put in the middle of the album. It's not bad, but novelty pieces go at the start or end, or the start of sides or something ? it's just a terrible place for it.

The one area in which Birds Of Fire really smokes its predecessor is the quality of the acoustic piece. Lush as A Lotus On Irish Streams was, Thousand Island Park has an acoustic guitar-driven attack and sort of American-mysticism flavour. Rick Laird's thick, but delicate upright bass plays off over the top of McLaughlin and Hammer's interweaving acoustic and grand piano lines, coalescing from their tentative interplay into full-speed mystical affairs, challenging each other to come up with something more impressive and yet still delicate, and just about every line is met with something just ever so slightly more distinguished. How do you follow something like that? Apparently with what the CD booklet fairly terms proto-speed metal. Hope is a two minute or so jam, with one very well-played Goodman theme underpinning the whole thing, and a menacing, thick and threatening rhythm section (I mean, OK, the rest of the titles appear very fitting, so I'll forgive them, and in the context of its spiritual trilogy with Sanctuary and Resolution, it seems much more fitting), and a slowly building McLaughlin contribution, along with a flourish or two of twinkling electric piano in all this chaos. Again, a fade; previously, it didn't matter so much, and it's hardly my favourite piece on the album anyway, but really, MO is a jam/jazz-band, and sometimes I want to hear their idea of the conclusion of a piece, not just the two minutes of bleak build-up.

One Word is probably the album's deciding factor for a listener, I'd guess. Cobham is given centre-stage, with his water-fall flourish turning into a smoking, subtle, brilliantly played and incredibly fast bit of drum soloing over which the rest of the band initially contributes mysterious themes, and then brief quality solos over a good Laird bass. Laird's bass solo is one of the album's better moments, and it's nice seeing his usually masked and murky obligatory bedrock status transformed into a sort of rhythmic lead, with a really nice amount of contrast and a fantastic sound. Great stuff, Mclaughlin puts his pyrotechnics to rest and switches to an upbeat, classy, and fantastic funk-styled tone, which he's able to replace with his archetypal unanticipated solo working off against Hammer (now firmly on moog) and Goodman (a real gem of a distorted violin solo coming off in the mix), and suddenly, a sort of false conclusion leads us onto Cobham completely solo; he's focussed, sharp and continues to give a real impression of musicality. OK, it's not my favourite drum solo ever, it's not even his best solo, and its impact really does depend on whether you're ready for it, but it's good, and the return of the whole unit over this jerky, energetic rhythm and a thin Laird bass which allows Cobham to continue his centrality for brief soloing bursts preparing for different parts of the previous music to be reprised. And we get to see a real ending, which is always great. A very draining piece, and in light of the following piece and its position in the album, its impressiveness and quality is almost excessive. I am actually just taking a break mid review and mid listen to go make coffee so I can treat the following number without my head feeling like it's going to break. A rare occasion where a strong track is a liability, but man, what a liability!

The reason One Word's positioning isn't maybe the best is that Sanctuary goes out of its way to be quite haunting, dark and unrelenting. McLaughlin's weepy guitar (somewhat reminiscent of Miles Davis' slower trumpet parts) and Goodman's violin twine together in a smooth, balladic fashion and work on squeezing out of every note all possible emotion and movement. A weird flute-like lead appears from somewhere, and I'm really not too sure where, Goodman, possibly, Hammer, possibly, McLaughlin, possibly, and it takes one of the album's finest solos, a moment of real emotion trapped within the pounding sketch of Cobham's drums. Even the ending offers only a limited sense of resolution. This piece is challenging, and there are a couple of really great ideas in there, but I can't say it's one I ever feel like listening to independently, and in the album's context it's almost painful to endure. I just don't like this one, maybe I just don't get it; it could be a real gem in another context, I sense, but for this album, it's five minutes of music that I can only think of as accomplished, not as enjoyable.

Open Country Joy, thankfully, is a complete reversal of fortunes, and the best piece of the album, opening pastorially with a low-key McLaughlin guitar, gentle, drifting piano and a quiet violin. Cobham shifts around a bit on a select kit and it resolves itself in a gentle blur. And then it hits you. Stomach, brain, heart, everywhere. Worth the price of the album. Just make sure you've got the volume pretty loud when you first hear this one. A short section for my favourite track, but sometimes it's just not worth spoiling the initial impact to make the review a bit more complete.

Resolution is the album's third menacing piece and also its conclusion, but this time it works, with a really insistent bass rhythm, a detached and precise drum marking it, a gradual development by McLaughlin and Hammer from certain anger into a real soul-searching declaration of intent. As far as the album's perceived mini-story of personal philosophy and spiritual development goes, it's a great ending choice.

So, not the consistency I think the first album had, there are a couple of tracks that are really out of place ? whether the stunning One Word or the fun, but nonetheless novel, Sapphire Bullets Of Pure Love. However, rearranging these ones to the end and start removes some of the album's other enormous strengths. Additionally, there's one piece that is strong independently, but so draining as to be really out of place among such bursting-with-energy companions, and just too draining to be listened to independently. And there are a couple of moments that are just not as good as the others on the album. So, that's going to make this album a 'mere' four stars.

However, in case the first half of the review didn't stress it enough, this is a brilliant jazz/rock album. Six of the Mahavishnu Orchestra's crowning achievements, some real development in terms of sheer musicality from the already mind-bending debut, and a sense of the emotional power and compositional, or at least arrangement-based, talent that makes this band so highly regarded even among, essentially, rock fans.

Rating: Four Stars, 12/15 (for comparison, The Inner Mounting Flame is a 5 stars, 14/15, but really, either album is a good starting point) Favourite Track: Open Country Joy

Edit: cut to three in accordance with my newfound cruelty. It's as good an album as I conveyed in the review, probably, but I wanted four and five star albums to be a slightly more exclusive plateau and with the album's structural issues and weak points, I figured this should possibly go down... very much worth having, anyway.

TGM: Orb | 3/5 |

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