THE MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA WITH JOHN MCLAUGHLIN The Inner Mounting Flame (Speakers Corner)
The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s 1971 debut sounds kind of like a raggedy, prog rock version of contemporaneous Miles Davis (of whose fusion finishing school guitarist McLaughlin was a graduate). Jerry Goodman, formerly of The Flock, plays keening, smoky electric violin, a pretty good timbral foil for McLaughlin’s scorching, acrid guitar tones, and helps distance it from the work of other fusion bands. It’s a mess, admittedly, but a glorious, jet-propelled one. On the one hand, it anticipates Jeff Beck’s much tamer version of this music on his 1975 album “Blow By Blow”; on the other, it shows up Frank Zappa’s scripted jam sessions as starched and regimented, sounding like a tape of “Hot Rats” that’s been sliced into pieces, thrown in the air and spliced back together in a random order, William Burroughs cut up-style.
At times, “The Inner Mounting Flame” is an absolutely blistering listen: “The Noonward Race” and “Vital Transformation”, for example, are huge, craggy melodic cliff faces, awesome when playing if barely memorable afterwards. “A Lotus On Irish Streams” provides a few minutes of relative relaxation, but even here the dialogue between guitar, violin and Jan Hammer’s piano is still dazzling in its intricacy. If all this suggests an album composed entirely of elitist instrumental grandstanding, “You Know You Know”, sampled by Massive Attack and Mos Def, proves otherwise. It sounds purpose built to soundtrack a quiet, tense scene in a blaxploitation film, Billy Cobham’s drumming bordering on sinister.
Speakers Corner’s lovely 180 gram vinyl reissue appears to be closely modelled on the original US pressing; it does as good a job as could be expected with this thick, churning sonic broth.
MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA Birds Of Fire (Friday Music)
Buzzy and frenetic like a beehive gone fusion, as with its predecessor “The Inner Mounting Flame” the second Mahavishnu Orchestra album, originally released in 1973, derives much mileage from the novel timbral clash between John McLaughlin’s acrid shredding and Jerry Goodman’s smoky-toned violin work. Despite the unreconstructed sleeve photo of McLaughlin locked in onanistic communion with a double-necked guitar, this is jazz-rock that has no need to be ashamed of itself. Vital and inventive, it’s the sound of genre atoms splitting. (McLaughlin, after all, was a veteran of Miles Davis’ groundbreaking work on the electrification of jazz.)
From the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sonic fragment of “Sapphire Bullets Of Pure Love” to the ten minute drum solo-saturated “One Word”, this is a compelling, consistently inventive and, yes, entertaining album, a subtle and addictive sensory battering, contradictory as that might seem. “Hope” is as majestically uplifting as its title promises, a kind of jazzier King Crimson. “Birds Of Fire” is hardly the kind of album that desperately needed a single, but this could easily have been its calling card. “Open Country Joy” evokes the kind of pastoral idyll its title suggests – throw in a pedal steel and it could easily have been the birthplace of country-jazz-rock – before being hammered to oblivion by a more typically Mahavishnuan centre section. “Resolution” is another of their unapologetically monolithic pieces, rising up in front of the listener as it grandly ascends the scale.
Whilst not being quite as brilliant as Speakers Corner’s exemplary reissue of “The Inner Mounting Flame”, “Birds Of Fire” also represents a significant upturn in the quality of Friday Music’s products. Perhaps the key reason for this being such a fine sounding record is that it’s co-mastered by Kevin Gray, but whatever the cause, this “Birds Of Fire” is a musical and sonic delight.