Fire is the ultimate symbol of human dominance. When early primitive humans discovered fire, they planted the first seed for humans to dominate the planet. With fire, they had a weapon, a smoldering, dangerous weapon. They had something to give them warmth. Without fire, the space race would be impossible, nearly all weapons would never work, and cooking becomes a much more devious task. To some, fire might be the creator of everything evil--animal cruelty, war, technological rivalry. Despite all this, fire also represents intensity and energy. For this reason, I suspect, The Mahavishnu Orchestra's two album titles contain references to fire. They considered themselves a band full of intensity and energy, which is a fairly accurate description of the band.
In the early 70s, jazz fusion was entering its prime. Miles Davis' landmark album Bitches Brew singlehandedly created the genre, with members that would continue in the jazz fusion genre, including John McLaughlin. After Bitches Brew, McLaughlin formed The Mahavishnu Orchestra. Although only releasing two albums (and later The Lost Trident Sessions), The Mahavishnu Orchestra became one of the most well-known fusion bands along with bands like Weather Report. Bands like Aerosmith and The Eagles opened for Mahavishnu. Why did this band catch on so fast? They, to the mainstream, were a completely original band unlike anything they had ever heard before. The distorted rock guitar of McLaughlin accompanied with the prog keyboards of Hammer and the violin of Goodman definitely created a unique sound even in the jazz world. The jazz world accepted Mahavishnu well for their virtuosity unique sound and feel, but the rock guitar drew many jazz fans away. The rhythm section of Rick Laird and Billy Cobham drove through all the complex time signatures thrown their way. Due to this seemingly new sound to the mainstream, Bird of Fire had an 11 week stay on the Billboard Album Chart and peaked at 15.
The album begins by mesmerizing the listener immediately. The title track and album opener starts with a gong crash, giving an epic feel about the album within 2 seconds. The gong crashes get louder and a guitar melody fades in. The electric guitar is somewhat fuzzy and picked with a tremolo style. Bass and violin add in creating a melody of their own. Finally, the drums enter making a seemingly simple rock beat but given the time signature, it isn't. John McLaughlin takes his first solo while the keyboard maintains his melody underneath and the bass continues the bassline created by him and the violin. As always, McLaughlin's solo is extremely virtuosic. The solo is one of the most rock esque on the album, often playing extremely fast and then holding a screaming high note on the fretboard. At 2:50, the song picks up steam with an extremely progressive feel, but the song ends up reverting back to the original riff and McLaughlin continues to solo. The entire song continues between these two feels and McLaughlin remains the feature throughout the song. The song fades out on the original riff.
The album continues on its high with a composition dedicated to McLaughlin's mentor, Miles Davis. The song is entitled Miles Beyond, and throws references to "Mademoiselle Mabry." That song itself was a reference to Hendrix's "The Wind Cries Mary." The song opens with keyboard going through a jazzy chord progression. A bassline and drums enter, creating an excellent groove. The first soloist on the song is Goodman, showing that a violin can fit with a jazzy song. The solo is short and everything drops out except for quiet plucked guitar and the same keyboard progression faintly heard in the background. The guitar plucking is extremely fast and up on the fretboard extremely high. During a variation on the riff, Cobham is given a drum feature, since he does not really play much of a given beat and fills the entire time. While Cobham fills, McLaughlin plays a solo above him, creating a sonic frenzy that only Mahavishnu can create. The song closes out on the groove and a drum crash.
The longest song on the album, One Word, gives each member of the band a feature. The song starts with a drum roll, which fades in slowly before stopping and entering into a beat based on the drum roll. A guitar, violin, and bass line enters along with the drums. While the rest of the instruments hold out a note, the keyboard will play a blisteringly fast run. Then the bass plays a driving bassline and faint keyboard lines can be heard along with extremely fast guitar lines. Everything gets louder and louder before reaching a tripletized climax. The song then enters a funky section which features Rick Laird. He solos all over the fretboard, maintaining a funky groove throughout. The solo is reminiscent of Jaco in his Weather Report days. This is his only real chance to stand out on the album without McLaughlin or anyone else trying to steal his thunder. He goes on for a minute or two before settling on a bass line and McLaughlin begins playing chords and the drums get more intense. The chord strumming pattern becomes more and more complex as the song creepingly gets louder. Finally, McLaughlin launches into a solo. He and Hammer trade off between solos. McLaughlin sounds like two instruments because he continually gets panned in different ears. The trading becomes more and more frantic and rapid throughout the song until they just start playing at the same time. All hell breaks loose, yet the rhythm section holds everything together until Cobham launches into a drum solo. He starts just playing the drum beat with some sparse tom-tom hits. Progressively, the solo drifts away from the drum beat and gets more and more complex. However, he still maintains a sense of time and feel within the solo which is free-form. The solo continues to about 8:20, where the rest of the band enters even though Cobham is still filling. Goodman comes in with his violin and joins the frenzy of McLaughlin and Hammer. The rhythm section continues to impress by holding all of this frenzy within the complex time signatures the song continues to throw up. The song ends by progressively getting louder and louder until a drum fill and then a held note.
Birds of Fire shows the apex of Mahavishnu's abilities in their short yet illustrious run in the jazz fusion world. The Mahavishnu Orchestra is criminally unheard of these days and serve as inspiration for those interested in rock and jazz.
Birds of Fire
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