MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA — Birds of Fire (review)

MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA — Birds of Fire album cover Album · 1973 · Fusion Buy this album from MMA partners
5/5 ·
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.
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