Birds Of Fire

Mahavishnu Orchestra

CBS Records, 1972

REVIEW BY: Eric Atwell


Fusion. Such a bad word, especially considering how bastardized the genre-bending style has become, manifesting itself and its long evolution in today's favorite workplace jam - smooth jazz. Now considered the domain of cubicle hounds and imaginationless culture drones, fusion (ergo smooth jazz) at one time actually rocked. No, it's not the Rippingtons and it's not Mr. G. What I'm talking about is the stuff Miles Davis and his legion of true believers drip out of your speakers, eliciting looks of either ecstasy or boredom, depending on your tolerance for free form.

Consider the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a heady mix of rock, jazz, blues, and musicianship. The M.O. took no prisoners and left no sound unexplored. Birds Of Fire, by far the group's most commercially successful venture, was released in 1972 during the maturation of the fusion revolution. While predicated on a pretentious (by modern day standards) tabla of eastern philosophic guruism presented to listeners in the form of haughty song titles and liner note poetry, at its essence this music takes bong-hit rock to the next level, and depending on your perspective, to the next universe.

Jan Hammer (electric piano, moog), Billy Cobham (drums), Jerry Goodman (violin) and Rick Laird (bass) fill out the orchestra, and they literally lift Mahavishnu John McLaughlin to regions of guitar playing that to this day amaze even the most jaded Ibanez toting Jersey hair rocker.

The title cut, "Birds Of Fire," starts with an ominous gong tolling, and is followed by the coolest 13/8 guitar riff ever. Listeners used to the inherent rationality of a I-IV-V progression might feel nauseous after hearing these wicked chords played on the 12-string plank of a doubleneck SG. They won't feel any better after the band comes in and launches McLaughlin into what is a most interesting guitar solo: a romp through pentatonic scales that are so out of key they are in key, if you get my meaning. True believers in the Davis way will be in a world of ecstasy, because this is the real stuff, as it was intended. This is not the organ-dominated stylings of late comers like Return to Forever, or the overt slickness of Weather Report, two bands that might be (incorrectly) considered by some to be the true representatives of seventies fusion.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The next piece, "Miles Beyond (Miles Davis)," is a favor returned to Miles, who included a track titled "John McLaughlin" on his legendary record Bitches Brew. This one starts in Hendrix-land, if there is such a place, and Jan Hammer's playing on this opening electric piano riff indicates the tightness of his technique. My favorite moment on the album occurs midway through the song; the main theme breaks down into a jam between Hammer and McLaughlin, and McLaughlin's acoustic guitar picking exhibits some fiery yet withheld passion in the middle of an instrumental storm.

"Celestial Terrestrial Commuters" captures all the manic emotions of a morning spent behind the wheel. I'd venture to say this song is as formulaic as the Orchestra got, featuring a main intro theme, followed by a moog solo, then back to the theme, working into a ridiculously talented duel between strings and keys. This song would be as comfortable on Mahavishnu's first release, Inner Mounting Flame, as it is on this album.

I usually group the next two tracks, "Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love" ("SBPL") and "Thousand Island Park," into one. While only 22 seconds long, "SBPL" is a cool experiment in sound that departs from the absolute intensity of the first three tracks and prepares listeners for the less demanding middle of the sequence. The fact "Thousand Island Park" is a mood piece with acoustic strings and piano furthers this notion of an "eye of the storm". It features a beautiful melody and delicate playing that works best as a contrast to the rest of the album.

"Hope", the next cut, picks up the pace in a strong, repeating theme that builds towards McLaughlin's vision of heavenly gates and illuminated cloud tops. The ultimate in restraint occurs when the listener can hear McLaughlin really dig into the power chords at the very end of the piece, right as the fade out begins. Special mention must be made of Billy Cobham, who maintains a sick beat in this song, as well as throughout the entire album.

If you listen to only one track from this record, it has to be the piece titled "One Word." And that word would be "badasses." This song is so intense it still tightens my nerves, even on what must be the 300th listen. "One Word" builds and builds, until the tension is released in a hair-raising solo section that features insane cutting between McLaughlin, Goodman and Hammer, and is anchored by a solid bass line on top of funky drumbeats. The players solo for diminishing measures until they all meet at the end and the progression explodes into, you got it, a drum solo!

"Sanctuary" is a quiet piece that revolves around a pulsating minor progression, and really is a necessary moment of peace after "One Word." The next track, "Open Country Joy," begins with a Zeppelin-esque chord progression played on the aforementioned 12-string, and continues through some sweet melodies until all of a sudden the song drops out, and from nowhere an instrumental jam appears. Don't have this tune turned up too loud in the car, or the jam's guitar intro might cause an automobile accident. "Resolution" is an ascending progression that climaxes at its very end, which is also the end of the album.

For listeners interested in consuming some terrifying yet completely entertaining instrumental music that predates (yet is far more evolved than) modern "jazz" by 25 years, I highly recommend Birds Of Fire. If real musicians scare you, and you like your music canned and packaged for mass consumption, this is one record that might leave you reeling in search of the stop button.

Rating: A

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© 1998 Eric Atwell and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of CBS Records, and is used for informational purposes only.