With the death of Jimi Hendrix, it was as if the greatest player had left the court, leaving it open for the next lot of six string virtuosos to come in and dominate not only the remaining space but expand upon what had gone before. And that’s exactly what they did. Santana had already established himself as the Latin Hendrix, a player of extreme dexterity and imagination. There were also others, but it was John McLaughlin and his Mahavishnu Orchestra more than anyone which had the most promise of filling the wide gap left in the wake of Hendrix’s passing. Apart from McLaughlin himself the band was made up of some of that era’s finest musical gladiators. Rick Laird (bass); Billy Cobham (drums); Jerry Goodman (violin), and the ever ubiquitous Jan Hammer on keyboards and kitchen sink. Birds of Fire was the group’s second album, and depending on who you talk to, is something of an improvement on their first, The Inner Mounting Flame.
“Birds of Fire” is the powerful opener, and boy is it intense. If you believe in the butterfly effect then whenever they performed this number, in theory there should have been a large tornado somewhere on the other side of the world devastating a small city. All players are giving it their utmost, especially McLaughlin who certainly pulls out the chops, and if they were taking vitamin pills, I’d love to know what they were. This is not the sort of music one could perform when stoned or half pissed. In fact I’m surprised that each member didn’t also have a professorship in particle physics, and hung out with cosmologists in their spare time.
And now that we’ve increased our IQ level by a few points, the funky “Miles Beyond (Miles Davis)” is a tribute by McLaughlin to his former mentor and jazz giant. The tune has a swinging cerebral quality to it which somehow makes it work, and to hear Cobham creating multiverses on his drum kit is simply a joy to behold. “Celestial Terrestrial Commuters” is just as the title suggests, another brainy workout this side of the Orion Nebula. The song also consists of more varied time signatures to make a band like Coldplay shit their collective trousers.
The poetically titled “Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love” is a brief 24 second epic into outer space. It’s short, and that’s the main thing. On “Thousand Island Park” McLaughlin reveals his affiliation for Spanish guitar, doing his best to resemble a Paco de Lucia in the process. “Hope” is all dramatic wind and a repetitive one at that.
On “One Word” McLaughlin proves that he’s your jazz fusion daddy, while the other musicians build a cosmic space around him, allowing both McLaughlin and Hammer to challenge each other and trade musical blows. Though Cobham also gets a beat in, eventually playing a drum solo and in the process proving that he really could fuck with space and time whenever he could be bothered with it (which was probably every day of the week anyway). “Sanctuary” is all mood and cinematic tendency. And while it’s nice to listen to, it doesn’t really lead to anywhere, no matter how great the playing. “Open Country Joy” is where the group explore a more cosmic country route, albeit in fits and starts. One thing I can’t imagine is these chaps tilling the land any time soon, no matter how impressive their playing. The last track “Resolution” is perhaps for serious fans only, relying on atmospherics than actual song structure, which is perhaps its major flaw.
What is intellectual nirvana for some is a mind-fuck for others. And that is what this album can do to you if you’re not in the right mood. Either turn you into a naval gazing statue, or cause your wife to run out of the room, lest its over-complicated chord changes turn you into a homicidal maniac. Mahavishnu Orchestra were without a doubt at the cutting edge of jazz rock. Not only did they manage to incarcerate the proverbial lightning in the bottle, but unleash a lightning bolt of their own, whose energy would reverberate for years to come throughout the jazz fusion world.