MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA REVIEWS:
The Inner Mounting Flame (1972)
Album Score: 13
If it isn't obvious to you after the first few milliseconds of this album that The Mahavishnu Orchestra were one of the premiere jazz-fusion groups that ever existed, then your brain done broke. These guys were not only able to play the living snot out of their respective instruments, but they were able to play off of each other to an absolutely heart-stopping effect. There is no singing whatsoever in this album, but hearing how intricate and personality ridden all these instruments are, then you'll thank the heavens above that there are no singers to distract us all from that. This is a great, great album from a group of the finest virtuosos in the world.
I know, any jazz-snob would read that and scoff saying “That's what jazz has always been about! Just listen to jazz, my friend! None of this fusion-rock stuff! Scharg!” But what this jazz snob doesn't understand is I like rock-a-rolla! I like listening to these guys play so quickly and intensely that it's amazing their arms don't fall off (particularly the drummer). The atmospheres and textures they create in some of these songs are utterly tantalizing.
Check out “Meeting of the Spirits,” the album opener if you want to know what it's like to be stuck in the middle of a tornado. (Don't watch the movie Twister! Sure it has visuals, but you'll invent much better visuals in your head if you close your eyes and dare to use that imagination of yours.) Or if you tend to favor more beautiful things, take a look at “A Lotus on Irish Streams.” It sounds exactly the way you think it sounds! You hear a piano and acoustic guitars twinkling providing a beautiful backdrop while a violin plays a free-flowing and expressive melody. I never heard anything quite like this before nor since.
I get dazzled to death by the fast-paced instrumental acrobatics in pieces like “Vital Transformation” and “The Noonward Race.” The complexity alone of these pieces were enough for them to become immortal masterworks! But my one complaint about them is I don't get any real feeling or emotion out of them (other than, I guess, hectic madness). Perhaps I'm trying to look for something that shouldn't be looked for. But if there were that extra emotional connection, then I'd be sure to love them even more.
“You Know You Know” is a slow song that can be extremely dull at first, but their knack for soloing helps make the piece evolve texturally. That said, I am still somewhat bored with it, but not nearly enough for me to ever want to press the 'skip' button. “The Dance of the Maya” can be a positively scary song, but it does every once in awhile evolve into a subdued R&B chugging session that doesn't interest me a whole lot. …..I know, I'm finding a lot of little things to complain about, aren't I?! And believe me these are little things. I'm not exaggerating when I say The Inner Mounting Flame is one of the most impressive albums ever released. I mean, if I'm incorrect about this, then there must be an entire universe of great albums that I don't know about. That would be awesome, but unlikely.
You'll have to hear this to believe it. In fact, you should hear it if you haven't already. I'm making that an assignment for you. My original review of this album contained the line: “Simply put, I usually don't listen to this type of music on my own freewill.” While I still don't listen to jazz-fusion all that often, I have been successfully turned onto this style of music thanks to Mahavishnu Orchestra. So, if you're not a jazz-fusion fan and you want to become a jazz-fusion fan, then this is a great place to start.
Read the track reviews:
Birds of Fire (1973)
Album Score: 12
When I first reviewed these Mahavishnu Orchestra albums, I thought it was pretty conclusive that Birds of Fire was greatly superior to the debut album. Even though I didn't take the time to fully re-immerse myself in these albums since that time, that strong conviction remained with me until now. Well, what can I say? I was wrong! These were not only the first jazz-fusion albums that I ever reviewed, but they were the first ones that I ever listened to. I took so well to the genre that I was starry-eyed about it! So, let's correct it. While Birds on Fire is a positively great jazz-fusion record that deserves regular rotation from fans the world wide, this doesn't quite have the same pizzazz that The Inner Mounting Flame does.
But it still has a lot of pizzazz! The title track describes exactly what Hell must be like. A foreboding, scaling string loop and thumping bass keeps the rhythm alive, and John McLaughlin plays the role of Lucifer. Like in the previous album, McLaughlin makes his guitar noodles sound like it's talking—in this case, he's barking orders at his hellfirey minions! Despite my descriptions of Hell, this is by no means what these guys had originally had in mind for it. I really had no idea what they were thinking about. All I did was listen to the music and tried to describe to you what it sounds like to me... You might listen to it and think of something else. It's all up to interpretation. This is the power of good music! It inspires our imagination!
I wish they kept that going for the rest of the album. “Miles Beyond” for instance doesn't inspire my imagination much at all. I get a rather empty feeling from it. Luckily, they keep the same sort of fast-paced and dazzling instrumentation standards they were loved for perfectly intact, but I also get somewhat bored of listening to it. That never happened in The Inner Mounting Flame. Not even once.
I love “Celestial Terrestrial Commuters” because it makes me think of an alien invasion. The overall atmosphere sounds tense and uncertain, and the guitar noodles sound like people are panicking and arguing with each other. And then all of the sudden a quacking synthesizer comes in, which must be the alien telling everyone why he showed up! I swear, I will never get sick of listening to these guys noodle around each other. The 10-minute track “One Word” has similarly done solos strewn throughout, which keeps it immensely entertaining. The only thing non-entertaining about it is that rather extended drum solo, which certainly could have been cut down. Who the hell likes drum solos, anyway?
“Thousand Island Park” has to be the most boring song of the bunch even though it is rather evocative. It's a pleasant, slow-paced and sparse song with a twinkly piano and a similar acoustic guitar. If it's supposed to be a textural piece, then it could have done with more texture, and if it's not a textural piece, then it could have done with more notable themes. “Sanctuary” is rather spooky and evil sounding, but it also could have been improved somewhat by intensifying the atmosphere or introducing memorable themes. As it is, it's highly respectable and immersible, but it would have been GREAT if they took that extra step.
Like I said in my review of The Inner Mounting Flame, any complaints I have against this album are little more than nitpicks. If you love jazz-fusion or want to start loving jazz-fusion, then Birds of Fire is one of the most essential albums that you will ever own. Take it from me. This album blew my mind the first time I heard it, and perhaps it'll do the same thing for you.
Read the track reviews:
The Lost Trident Sessions (1999)
Album Score: 13
The Lost Trident Sessions contains what was meant to be The Mahavishnu Orchestra's third full-fledged studio album. They recorded this in 1973, but it wasn't until 1999 when this was released. The story goes that the album was shelved and subsequently lost in the warehouses, and then somebody finally found it, remastered it, and released it. This was also the last we would see of the classic line-up. McLaughlin formed an entirely new band, and turned Mahavishnu Orchestra into more of a classical music/prog outfit. They were still excellent of course, but that surely alienated much of their fan-base.
Although the material on this “lost” album was probably not a surprise to anyone considering most of it was subsequently released on their live album Between Nothingness and Eternity and Jerry Goodman's and Jan Hammer's Like Children. The only completely unreleased track was “John's Song #2.” The one thing that I miss about this album compared to their earlier two is that it doesn't contain a track that is quite as emotionally powerful as “The Meeting of the Spirits” or “Birds of Fire.” But what The Lost Trident Sessions has is a whole lot of phenomenally entertaining and masterful jamming pieces. I'd even wager to say that this is the most wholly entertaining and accessible Mahavishnu Orchestra album ever released.
Take a whiff of “Sister Andrea.” Do you remember the Mahavishnu Orchestra writing such a catchy, bad-ass riff before? That's like the Rolling Stones; I can listen to it over and over again and never grow tired of it! Seeing that this is the Mahavishnu Orchestra, there is quite a lot more to this song than the riff. It contains extended, sort of spaced-out solo movements, which of course are phenomenally interesting to listen to. “Trilogy” by all accounts is a typical wandering and rambly piece from them. It starts out quietly and subdued guitar and keyboard solos weave in and out of crescendos while a disparate drum rhythm plays. But then one at one point, it almost seems to threaten to turn into a crunchy heavy metal anthem! They're previous stuff never even hinted at heavy metal, so in all possibility, this might be the perfect place to begin listening to Mahavishnu Orchestra!
The one thing that this album has over the previous two Mahavishnu Orchestra albums is that there isn't a single moment I'm bored with. For the most part, every quiet part seemed well deserved and they were masterfully and beautifully evolved loud and booming sections. They're all interesting to hear develop, and as a listener I'm hanging onto everything. The last three tracks are by far the shortest; “I Wonder” and “Steppings Tones” are three minutes each. Of course they don't develop like their 10-minute tracks do, but each of them have their own distinct tones and textures. The former is a thunderous jam that's based on a rather compelling Bach-like chord progression, and the later is brilliantly subdued and creepy with a particularly excellent violin theme.
The last track, “John's Song #2” contains some of the wildest, tightest drumming that I've ever experienced in rock 'n' roll... I mean, just listen to the guy go at it! It's like he's trying to give his drum kit a slow death. Of course all the other soloists deliver their lightning-fast noodles with gusto, but I'd say it's the drummer who steals the spotlight. And he didn't need a full-fledged solo to give that to him, either! There's another area The Lost Trident beats their first two albums. THERE ARE NO STUPID DRUM SOLOS!
Anyone who lovesThe Inner Mountain Flame and Birds of Fire should without question own this album, too, since it completes the trilogy, and also because it is a fantastic jazz-fusion record in its own right. I'm sure that it's one of the most completely dazzling instrumental rock albums ever released.
Read the track reviews:
Between Nothingness and Eternity (1973)
Album Score: 11
They lose me in the last 20 minutes of this album, but overall, this is another fine instrumental jazz-fusion thingy from the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
And I'm not exactly disappointed with this, either. It's not like they lost their ability at all with this. It's just not impressing with me, or connecting with me like their untouchable Birds of Prey or even quite like Inner Mounting Flame. Part, if not all, of the reason for this has got to be the fact that they did this album live! (And, for the bloody record, Between Nothingness & Eternity doesn't count as a "live" album in the same sense of Live at Leeds and Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out seeing that none of these songs appear in studio albums ... so I get to score this like a regular album!)
Anyway, there are only three songs on here, and the first two songs are good enough to be considered excellent Mahavishnu tracks. "Trilogy" is my favorite (and ought to just have been separated into three tracks, but ... whatever). And, it also contains one of the most convincing moments of "space-rock" that I've listened to (albeit, I haven't exactly scouted such things out). "Sister Andrea" has a really great and memorable groove every once in awhile. Indeed, this might be one of the more memorable Mahavishnu songs just because of that groove! ... Part of that song doesn't quite strike me as anything, but ... it's all quite good overall.
"Dreams" really didn't impress me, though. It starts out sort of promising, because it features a very calm, soothing, and (as the title says) a dream-like state-of-things. However, when the song explodes, it doesn't strike me as being particularly emotional all the time ... nor does it give me images in my mind to play around with ... I gave the track an 8 because I was still quite impressed with the instrumentation of it (really ... if it gets much better than this, someone's going to have to pinch me or something), but ... hmmm ... this ain't no Birds of Prey, I hate to say.
Read the track reviews:
Album Score: 12
General audiences seem to have lost track of the Mahavishnu Orchestra after Birds of Fire was released … and maybe that’s for a good reason. The entire BAND from the first two Mahavishnu studio albums and that live one are GONE and ENTIRELY replaced with a new one!
…And, I’m like -- WHAAAAAAAAAA??????? I don’t care if you guys had artistic differences! Save your bickering for the recording studio! … That’s partly what you guys were doing with your instruments at any rate.
At first listen, I thought this album was … um … weak. But, I inevitably listened to it closer and reversed that opinion. John McLaughlin (the frontman and the only static member of this group) decided he wanted the London Symphony Orchestra to help him out … and so all of these songs have a distinct “orchestral” quality to them. Perhaps that’s what McLaughlin originally wanted seeing that the band has the word “orchestra” in its name! Reportedly, he dubbed this line-up the “real Mahavishnu Orchestra.” … So … that probably does indicate this is the sort of thing he originally had in mind.
At any rate, the music’s good. Every song starts and ends with an orchestral passage. In the track reviews, I described them as sounding like Gershwin, but … it’s probably not any less accurate to say that the music sounds like any other early 20th Century classical composer! … But Gershwin’s the name that popped to mind!
In between the classical compositions are the usual Mahavishnu rock-jazz piddly jams that we’ve been used to. Unfortunately, every one of ‘em don’t compare with the rock-jazz piddly jams on The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire presumably because the supporting musicians aren’t quite as talented, but they’re still pretty good.
When it comes right down to it, this is probably the most accessible of all Mahavishnu albums, but … it’s still not exactly for the average, casual listener. You’ll really have to be into this stuff! … This is only for those of you who like listening to 20th Century classical music and rock-jazz piddly jams!
Read the track reviews:
Visions of the Emerald Beyond (1974)
Album Score: 11
Hey, hey, hey!!! It's the Mahavishnu Orchestra!!!!! AND IT'S THE RETURN OF THE CRAAAAAAAAZY INSTRUMENTS!!!!!!!!! That's right. Not so much classical music here.
This album seems to have a concept, but it didn't seem like it was so well realized. The opening track gives us a hint of that ... it takes awhile for it to start (giving a calm before the storm feeling) and then a rather creepy singer pipes up and gives me the feeling I've entered some sort of alien realm. This creepy singing resurfaces in a sort of brief 'aria' "If I Could See," that seems right out of something in a different planet. You also can get a hint of the 'concept' if you scan the track titles. Hm.
That's a minor point, though. Fans of guitarists who go crazy-nuts with their instruments will find much to enjoy out of here. (That's not to mention the drums are all over the place as well as a violin!) As always with The Mahavishnu Orchestra, the virtuosity of the instrumentalists are extremely impressive no matter who you are. Although the album has a few moments without much virtuosity. Notably, there's "Pegasus," which consists of a bunch of creepy noises. But none of these moments were exactly bad.
Since most of this album is jazz-fusion/avant-garde, this is not for everyone. ... Also it's not the best place to start with the band. I can't say this is any more impressive than their previous studio albums. The instrumentals were certainly more impressive in Birds of Fire. But anybody who liked those will also find much to like about this!
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