MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA — Birds of Fire (review)

MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA — Birds of Fire album cover Album · 1973 · Fusion Buy this album from MMA partners
5/5 ·
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.
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js wrote:
more than 2 years ago
I saw that same In Concert show and it blew me away too, not only was the music different, but their 'look' was different too. Less hippy, they were more clean cut and disciplined looking.


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