MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA — Birds of Fire

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MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA - Birds of Fire cover
4.47 | 69 ratings | 7 reviews
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Album · 1973

Tracklist

A1 Birds Of Fire 5:44
A2 Miles Beyond 4:41
A3 Celestial Terrestrial Commuters 2:55
A4 Sapphire Bullets Of Pure Love 0:21
A5 Thousand Island Park 3:21
A6 Hope 1:57
B1 One Word 9:56
B2 Sanctuary 5:06
B3 Open Country Joy 3:54
B4 Resolution 2:09

Total Time: 40:16

Line-up/Musicians

- Rick Laird /Bass
- Billy Cobham /Drums
- John McLaughlin /Guitar
- Jan Hammer /Keyboards, Synthesizer [Moog]
- Jerry Goodman /Violin

About this release

Columbia – KC 31996 (US)

Recorded at Trident Studios, London and CBS, New York

Re-released in 1982 in Spain as "Historia De La Música Rock Vol.68" (CBS – LSP 15402)

Thanks to snobb for the updates

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MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA BIRDS OF FIRE reviews

Specialists/collaborators reviews

dreadpirateroberts
Cracks in the line-up were already beginning to develop before this album - if a story of Laird and Goodman fighting and knocking Hammer over during a recording session for the last album are true - but you can't really see it in the music.

'Birds of Fire' is probably a more sophisticated album than its predecessor, but sacrifices some rawness, some of the brashness that was so welcome on their debut.

It does replace it with better production and more focused compositions. Opening with the title track, which covers similar ground to 'Meeting of the Spirits' the band start in top gear before slipping into the Davis cover 'Miles Beyond' which is a real stand out on the album, channeling some chilled funk that finally gives Laird a bit of space in the production, which actually happens a fair bit on this release. Here, in the opener and elsewhere, Cobham is his usual impressive, powerful self, especially when they crank it up for the last half of the piece, but he is also able to display his usual finesse.

The introduction of moog to Hammer's rig enables a different tonal palette to appear on the album and he overdubs it on 'Celestial Terrestrial Commuters' rather sparingly, though you'll hear it take the spotlight in the 'Dance of Maya'-ish 'Sanctuary.' Showcasing John's acoustic guitar is the brief and moody 'Thousand Island Park' which also features double bass and some nice work from Hammer. 'One Word' is pretty darn good and a showcase for the rhythm section while 'Open Country Joy' has an almost rude explosion in the middle of an otherwise pleasant country ballad.

It's a mixed album in some ways, but benefits from the changes they made, even as it suffers a little from the steps they repeat. I swing back and forth between three and four stars here, and so I'm putting the half star in. Again, like the Mahavishnu's debut, the classic fusion fan will want to hear this one.
Chicapah
As I recall, my first encounter with The Mahavishnu Orchestra came sometime in ‘73. I and some of my scalawag musician buddies were watching the late-night show “In Concert” on television in order to catch The Allman Brothers and MO was the opening act. I’d already read about the group in a magazine but with a name like that I figured them to be some kind of levitating, robed gurus that burned a lot of cheap incense and chanted weird mantras together. However, none of us gathered ‘round the boob tube that evening were prepared for what we heard and saw when they started playing. It was one of those magical moments in my life when I knew I was witnessing true greatness and I sensed a permanent reboot and realignment in my mental concepts of what was possible in music. The musicians in the band were creating sounds that might as well have been beamed down to us from another galaxy. To say that it was foreign to our ears is putting it mildly. To say that I was immediately befuddled and galvanized by their tidal wave of sound is a profound understatement. I don’t remember if any others in the room were as entranced by them as I was but I can assure you that I didn’t give a rat’s ass what they thought. I’d found a group that both amazed and excited me and I had to get them on my stereo ASAP.

Wanting to hear what they’d played on the show I opted to purchase their “Birds of Fire” album first. I doubt that it left my turntable for months. I was hopelessly addicted to them and I became a real nuisance to my friends by constantly talking about them and opining about how jazz/rock fusion would never be the same because of their wizardry. Little did I know at the time that this particular version of The Mahavishnu Orchestra had jumped the proverbial shark and were already splintering asunder. That news was to be a major disappointment for me yet the fact remains that while they were together they created what I consider a masterpiece of the genre that hasn’t lost a single molecule of its ability to instill shock and awe in the listener. Even four decades down the line it is still unsurpassed and I expect that in a thousand years it will continue to make jazz musicians and aficionados go slack-jawed in stunned admiration. Personally, I have yet to get over my astonishment. To this day it blows me away with every spin. A note of caution is in order, though. When playing this disc at home keep anything flammable away from the speakers. There will be sparks.

Drummer extraordinaire Billy Cobham’s clanging, flanged gong at the beginning of the record’s title song dramatically announces that you’re about to go on one of the wildest journeys your aural organs will ever embark on. Leave all preconceived notions behind because this isn’t just five guys making a bunch of avant garde noises. This tune, as well as all the others to come, has a solid melodic structure (however frantic it may be due to the velocity involved) that links the individual solos together cohesively, making the incredible make sense. John McLaughlin’s guitar, Jerry Goodman’s violin and Jan Hammer’s keyboard acumen is measured in astronomical terms and the group’s intensity is beyond belief. I’ve never experienced anything similar to it since. “Miles Beyond (Miles Davis)” follows and Jan’s soothing Rhodes piano is a much-needed tranquilizer after surviving the hurricane that blew through the opening cut. The song has another memorable melody to wrap your mind around, Goodman’s nimble-fingered violin ride displays his versatility and Cobham confirms that he’s an unrivaled beast of beats. The next number’s name, “Celestial Terrestrial Commuters,” says it all except that it’s also rush hour in their corner of the universe. The highlight of this insane instrumental is the heated duel that occurs between John and Jerry. It’s the stuff of fantasy. Another aspect of their music I love is how they don’t stretch out the tracks just for the sake of stretching them out. They don’t overstay their welcome.

“Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love” is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it psychedelic moment of Zen that leads to “Thousand Island Park.” This is a quieter but no less fascinating piece that takes an all-acoustic approach wherein McLaughlin flies and Hammer soars while bassist Rick Laird holds it all together on the upright. The song is a breath of pure oxygen. “Hope” is a blissfully transcendent, repeating pattern of notes that not only grows brighter by the second but literally moves me to tears. My only complaint is that, lasting less than two minutes, it is cruelly short-lived. This is what a saint’s ascension into heaven must use for a soundtrack. Billy’s perfect closed roll on his snare at the start of “One World” is like an approaching hailstorm. The band then delivers the complex central theme as well as establishing the tune’s blistering tempo. For dynamic tension Laird contributes a modest bass lead to set the stage for what’s to come. McLaughlin, Hammer and Goodman then circle into a ménage a trois of virtuosos in which they engage in a contest of other-worldly one-upsmanship that blazes up in ferocity to the spontaneous combustion point where Cobham breaks up the fight with a dazzling drum solo. Even if you’re allergic to such things, lend an ear. The man’s no stick-mauler, he’s a master technician worth paying attention to. The number’s appropriately aggressive end segment will singe your eyebrows off. Sheesh McGeesh!

“Sanctuary” slips on a hypnotic waltzing rhythm to lull you into a false sense of knowing exactly where you are as they demonstrate their willingness to restrain their passion but not their emotions. The melody that John and Jerry perform in unison is as sad as a face full of tears. (I’d ask that they play this at my funeral but it would probably just freak folks out so never mind.) The beatific intro to “Open Country Joy” is misleading as they suddenly turn on a dime and switch to a funky groove that struts proudly beneath fiery spasms emanating from the torrid trio before non-chalantly restoring pastoral peace. The closer is the stupendous “Resolution.” As is the earlier “Hope,” it’s a too-brief excursion into ecstasy that climbs and climbs higher and higher to an inexpressible apex that can only be compared to what it must feel like standing upon the summit of Mount Everest. It’s not just music, it’s an encounter with God.

What these relatively young geniuses do on this album is more than super-speed shredding, they trip the light fandango. They move as fast as bolts of lighting but with the grace of a gazelle. Their debut LP is great and I recommend it but “Birds of Fire” is in a class all its own. It fills me with childlike wonder as few bands have ever done every time I sit and let it wash over me. It just may be my favorite jazz/rock fusion album of all time but that assessment can change from day to day (It does have competition). One thing’s for certain. It is without question a pristine masterpiece of modern music and a huge milestone in the evolution of jazz. To rate it as essential doesn’t do it justice.
M.Neumann
Most of what we now recognize as Jazz Rock Fusion dates back to the first two albums by John McLaughlin's MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA, which ought to be enough reason to locate either on that lofty plateau of certified five-star masterpieces. "Birds of Fire", in 1973, was the second and more popular of the pair: a sizable crossover hit at a time when even casual music fans were a lot more adventurous than they are today.

Significance aside, it was also an essential slice of unadulterated instrumental genius, allowing McLaughlin the chance to refine the lessons learned alongside MILES DAVIS during the legendary "Bitches Brew" sessions a few years earlier. Miles drew the blueprint; McLaughlin built the house, giving it some necessary structure (and brevity: compare any cut here to the monster 27+ minute title jam from Davis' 1969 album), and directing it toward an audience more accustomed to the sounds of Jimi Hendrix.

Like all the best so-called Fusion, this is actually Rock, but played with a jazzer's ear for timing and dexterity. Listen to the aptly titled twin tracks "Hope" and "Resolution", with their endlessly rising chords anticipating what would soon be heard from the "Larks Tongues" line-up of King Crimson (Fripp and McLaughlin were clearly kindred musical spirits). Or the pinpoint speed and precision of "One Word", accelerating to a hypertense climax from an already alarming breakneck pace. Or the furious title track, with McLaughlin trading heat and friction with Jerry Goodman's (electric) violin and Jan Hammer's keyboards.

Loud and fast guitarists were of course not uncommon in the 1970s, but McLaughlin's style was something else entirely: raw and emotional, heartfelt but blistering, and matched only by the superlative talents of his fellow Mahavishnu bandmates, surely one of the most impressive group of musicians ever assembled. But it isn't all virtuoso fireworks. "Miles Beyond" (a tribute of sorts to McLaughlin's mentor, who on "Bitches Brew" had likewise named a song for his guitarist) digs an easygoing groove, and "Open Country Joy" should strike a chord with fans of the DIXIE DREGS more bucolic barnyard excursions. Then there's the 22-second "Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love", a spurt of proto-ambient noise with a title longer than the track itself.

The band imploded during the sessions for an aborted third studio album (see "The Lost Trident Sessions"), but they left behind a long shadow, filled with countless Jazz Rock copycats. Imitation is said to be another form of flattery, but none of it could ever hope to match the original.

Members reviews

Warthur
For their second album the Mahavishnu Orchestra wisely decided not to try and top the explosive fury of their debut, instead seeking to diversify their sound. The closing Resolution recalls the dark tones of their first album, but other songs show a breathtaking versatility on the part of the band - for instance, Open Country Joy somehow manages to incorporate both gentle folk segments and pulsing funk sections. Particularly notable on this album is Jan Hammer's incorporation of a Moog into his arsenal of instruments, allowing him to add synthesiser touches above and beyond his already important electric piano contributions. I don't think it's quite as groundbreaking as the first album, which is an absolutely essential piece of the fusion puzzle, but it's very, very good indeed.
1967/ 1976
Ok, the music is great and the atmospheres are great. But 'Birds Of Fire' is, in my opinion an easy album, at the level of a POP album... Only that 'Birds Of Fire' is a true masterpiece of Jazz Rock and Jazz! This because it is naturally for a musians like this conceive an album of this sublime level. Certainly the first track 'Birds Of Fire' is one of the more close to my vision of Prog that a human mind have conceived and 'Birds Of Fire' is sure one of the more close to my vision of Prog albums. But this is not sufficient to establish if 'Birds Of Fire' is a masterpiece or not.

In my other vision 'Birds Of Fire' is also one of the first Neo Prog albums because a perfect interpenetration of diverse type of music styles and musical conceptions... Mozart Vs Chet Baker... Jimi Hendrix Vs Chopin... Bach Vs Chinese music... Jazz Vs Folk... Folk Vs Heavy Rock... etc... etc... etc... And all with a superbe naturally that only big musicians have in possess!

In this album it is difficult to have a preferred (perfect) song because all the songs are magical and mythical... Also because all the songs of 'Birds Of Fire' are perfect hymns!

This is my sentence of one of my favourite all time albums!
Sean Trane
How does one better perfection? How could MO possibly top their incredible Inner Mounting Flame debut album? Well for one, they didn’t know that it couldn’t be bettered and for two, they actually did it by fiddling and twiddling the tiny imperfections and an increase tightness as they were now well acquainted with each other after pulling 300 concerts over two years, whereas for TIMF, MO had been together a matter of weeks. So in the early fall of 72 came out Birds Of Fire with an outstanding artwork halfway between Rothko and Folon and incendiary music to match both the cover and the title. With an unchanged line-up, MO was now soaring so high that the air is getting thin.

Unlike the debut who had only one track under the 5 minute-mark, Birds Of Fire is made of a myriad of shorter tracks with the just two well over that same 5 minute-mark. One of those being the opening title track that sets the standard even higher than Meeting did on TIMF, with Hammer and McLaughlin trading riffs and links over a wild rhythm section, which violinist Goodman choose to accompany to great affects. This track is most likely imbedded in the vast majority of 40-something western music fans’ subconscious mind, because it sounds familiar to almost everyone. A slower Miles Beyond (obviously dedicated to the man with the horn) crescendoes slowly until a huge riff takes the track upside down and once there, only Hammer and Goodman are keeping it alive until Mc and Cob come to the rescue and bring it back on its toes. An amazing trick that shouldn’t let anyone

The rest of the tracks on the first side are short thingies insuring quick changes, starting with Celestial Terrestrial Commuting, which obviously influenced Steve Hillage’s early solo works (Fish Rising to Open), Sapphire Bullets being just an electronic frenzy. A Spanish piano and guitar duo introducing a Flamenco ambiance where Mc’s fiery guitar goes to extreme, while Laird’s bass provide plenty of underlying drama and the needle lifts off another Meeting motif reworking, this time called Hope.

The monstrous 10-mins One World (an oldie from the Lifetime days) opens up the flipside, first gently under Cobham4S gentle drive morphing into a martial beat and bringing the track up to 200 MPH, with Hammer, Mc and Goodman trading licks, motifs and soloing away, before Cobham takes a solo (even if he’s the best in the world, it’s still a boring solo, no matter how overstretched it is) and thankfully closing up the track with some powerful instrumental interplay. Sanctuary is a slow-developing track, opening on Goodman’s uber-absolute violin than the rest of the musicians slowly entering the track, in full restraint, the listener can hear the quintet containing their energies to avoid exploding and respect the superb track. Open Country joy is often a bit overlooked, with its pastoral violin line, then a slight explosion before bringing us to one of the world’s best album endings: Resolution, which starts on a solemn martial chill-inducing crescendoing track bringing the tension to a max allowable (Goodman’s violin is incredibly efficient at this) before the burst…. Which will never come as the track ends and the needle lifts off, leaving us to imagine the explosion of molten volcanic rock in fusion. What a bunch of bloody teasers

Well, MO managed to perfect perfection, and they probably did it without being aware of the feat and actually rushing it up. Indeed the album was done between two tours and most members think they could’ve twiddled a few more knobs and refined the compositions to better it further still. As can be heard in One World, the three soloists where in a very competitive environment and the egos where now acting up a bit, although in this album it remains at a healthy level.

As a side note, regarding the egos, Mc had been recording his collab with buddy Carlos Santana and taking with him Cobham, eventually touring to promote the Love Devotion Supreme album, hand coming within hours of missing the opening the first concert of MO’s tour of Japan, thus being under-rehearsed for a while and creating much bad vibes for the next six months before the group implodes, taking in the abyss the recording sessions of their next album >> see Lost Trident and Nothingness reviews for more details.
AtomicCrimsonRush
'Birds of Fire', the followup to the incredible debut album, is as good, in some ways perhaps better, than 'Inner Mounting Flame', the jazz fusion masterwork. This second album begins with a gong and then we are off with John McLaughlin's relentless inimitable guitar style. Once again the album is fully instrumental with some of the best virtuoso musicianship of the genre. This band virtually wrote the book on jazz fusion and there are nods to the work and influence of Miles Davis, particularly on the track Miles Beyond, paying homage to the landmark album 'Bitches Brew' from the jazz legend.

The music is a fusion of heavy guitar, using jazz metrical patterns, Indian influences and a dash of Celtic thrown into the mix. The music ranges from intense and off kilter with a range of time signatures, to a beautiful and melancholy pathos. That is the same style as the debut album but this time the sound seems more refined and easily accessible to the average jazz fan. It does not feature the absolute best of MO but as a whole it is a tighter package.

Goodman is once again incredible on violin and the keyboards of Hammer feature a range of crescendos and allegros intermixed with the frenetic guitar of John McLaughlin.

Highlights include Birds of Fire, Miles Beyond (Miles Davis), Thousand Island Park, One Word and Sanctuary.

There are other highlights interspersed in the other tracks but it needs to be listened to as a whole to fully appreciate the innovation and ferociously original style of the band. This album is as legendary and highly revered in the jazz world as the debut album, making the band the revolutionary progenitors of jazz fusion.

The CD does not include any bonus feature tracks which is maddening as it is very short for a CD. But it is still a great musical experience and worthy of masterpiece status in jazz collections.

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