After two trail blazing albums, The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire, the original line up of Mahavishnu Orchestra had disbanded, leaving John McLaughlin with few other options than to form a new line up, one that consisted of Gayle Moran (keyboards, vocals) Ralphe Armstrong (bass), Narada Michael Walden (drums, percussion), and Jean-Luc Ponty (violins). With George Martin in the producer’s chair, McLaughlin finally put the word orchestra into the band’s name, by bringing the London Symphony Orchestra into the fold. Classical conductor Michael Tilson Thomas was also recruited, making Apocalypse one of the early ‘70s boldest, most pretentious statements yet by any jazz fusion outfit.
But is it really jazz fusion? Well, yes and no.
Opener “Power of Love” has some lovely lilting acoustic guitar by McLaughlin, while the London Symphony Orchestra glides ethereally as Jean-Luc Ponty drifts in and out like some ghostly vapour. It all gets a bit more serious on “Vision is a Naked Sword”, with its ominous arrangement at the beginning and McLaughlin’s own synaptic playing. The rest of the band also manage to stretch the old gray matter, especially Ponty, who plays like a cross between Jimi Hendrix and Stravinsky.
If there’s one track the listener will likely want to kill it’ll be “Smile of the Beyond”, a miscue if there was ever one. Moran certainly has an exquisite voice, angelic even, but what is this, Andrew Loyde Webber? “Wings of Karma” is just that, albeit of the orchestral variety. However once the LSO has finished doing its thing, McLaughlin and Co. come in obviously determined to kick some serious cerebral arse. Overall it’s all rather cinematic, to the extent that one almost expects Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif to walk into the room at any moment.
At 19 minutes, “Hymn to Him” is by far the longest piece, and depending on what mood the listener is in, potentially one of the most draining. McLaughlin shreds his guitar, the bass player shreds his bass, Jean-Luc Ponty makes violent love to his violin, while the drummer sounds as though he’s about to go into cardiac arrest at any moment. Although half way through, they’ve obviously decided that they need to lower their blood pressure, by slowing things down, launching into a laid-back funky groove, but it doesn’t last long, because as soon as the listener is beginning to relax, each member of the group break out into a competition of who can travel faster than the speed of light.
Some have commented, even suggested that this is the sort of album Hendrix may have gone on to produce. However personally I don’t think so. For a start, McLaughlin’s own technique is too clean, too precise. And besides, I doubt whether Jimi himself would have recorded with an entire symphony orchestra, much less dedicated a whole LP to Sri Chinmoy. Still, both the playing and production are absolutely first rate. Although Apocalypse would mark the end of a particular creative period for McLaughlin, because soon he would begin to explore Indian composition, and form Shakti, making music that was at the complete opposite end of the scale compared to what many of his jazz fusion contemporaries were doing at the time, and something which would establish him as one of the most unique guitarists of his age.