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Birds of Fire

4.7 out of 5 stars 107 customer reviews

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Audio CD, August 8, 2000
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Product Details

  • Audio CD (August 8, 2000)
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Label: Sbme Special Mkts.
  • ASIN: B0060ANRM2
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (107 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #13,222 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

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Format: Audio CD
The Mahavishnu Orchestra are widely known for breaking new ground in the world of popular music. They (unsurprisingly) upset many jazz purists (one of them would be musician Wynton Marsalis), while conversely, offering new ways of looking at jazz. This band may have been responsible for helping listeners (particularly of the younger crowd) ease their way into works of "pure" (for lack of a better term) jazz, but saying that largely undermines the integrity and musical power that The Mahavishnu Orchestra possessed. So to be more specific, this band may have helped broaden the appreciation of jazz, especially to a younger audience, while also (and more importantly) blowing the minds of many with their own dazzling musicianship.

Led by guitar virtuoso John McLaughlin, the Mahavishnu Orchestra specialized in blending rock with elements of jazz, Eastern, R&B, classical, country and other elements to form an indescribable brand of music. Not only that, every musician in this band were virtuosos, so the band were not without exhibiting feverish flights of aggression and intensity. However, this band were one of the rare breed of virtuosos who displayed a sense of taste, passion and fluidity in their virtuosic displays, and could rarely be criticized for dryness, or exhibiting nothing more than virtuosic chops all by itself. Another gift this band seemed to possess was a certain accessibility to their music -- it was complex and technical, yet, it could be very addictive, and utterly inviting.

These tracks (which were all composed by John McLaughlin) all seem to be exercises in spirituality. Birds are creatures that fly - they seem to soar above everything. Fire = passion, inspiration, stamina, energy - a life-affirming source.
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This album has enough energy and power to have been recorded in the birth of a supernova. Only the inner sanctum of guitarists had known a few years earlier of McLaughlin's arrival from England as a living legend, but the message quickly flew to the general public. The Orchestra featured McLaughlin's double-neck blinding speed; Jan Hammer's keyboard outcries; Jerry Goodman's electric violin playing both classical themes and twin lead lines; Rick Laird's trembling bass, and Billy Cobham's super-speed percussion and footwork. If you need any more help, think of the legendary live Fillmore track of "Elizabeth Reed" and consider that as close kin. Pure kinetic outbursts of notes and turbulent rhythms whip and rage on these 10 cuts, but there's also a few brief glimpses of relative calm in the eye of the hurricane.
It's perhaps appropriate that Cobham's gong splashes and rolling percussion alongside Goodman's chanting violin herald the title song with an Asian Indian-like mantra, as McLaughlin awakens with a piercing, rising flurry that sounds like a peacock in a courtship frenzy. The ritual reply comes back from Hammer's synthesizer, and then it's back to the guitar and violin as they weave and intertwine like DNA strands. "Miles Beyond" (dedicated to the late trumpeter) emerges slowly from the jazzy fog of electric piano, and then watches as Laird and Cobham raise the curtain for an opening statement by McLaughlin and Goodman. What follows next requires headphones-as much as you want to believe it's muted electric guitar, it's really a fascinating pizzacato on Goodman's violin, supported by more electric piano musings.
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Format: Audio CD
I just listened to both "Birds of Fire" and "The Inner Mounting Flame" back-to-back. I hadn't listened to them for awhile. I bought orginal copies on vinyl close to thirty years ago (that long? wow!!!) Needless to say, I love both albums.
Some observations- If you're a Mahavishnu novice, I suggest listening to "Birds of Fire" first. The pieces are shorter and easier to digest. However, it may take some time to tell which instrument is playing and who's soloing. The guitar, violin, and synth trade fours with abandon, are similarly processed, and all solo instruments bend notes (thanks to the Moog's pitch-wheel). Billy Cobham added a second bass-drum and extra tom-toms on "Birds of Fire". His classic style is more defined.
I really don't prefer one album over the other. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. "The Inner Mounting Flame" seems more jazz-oriented. Pieces are longer, solos are longer, and the recording allows a listener to tell one instrument/player from another with ease. "Birds of Fire" is more rock-oriented. Pieces are shorter (as I mentioned above), solos are more electronically processed, and many pieces have no solos at all ("Hope" and "Resolution," for example, which seem like sketches). It seems appropriate that the only "official" studio albums by the original (well, the only legitimate, in my opinion) version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra have incendiary titles ("...Flame" and "...Fire"). The intensity of this music, as well as the demands of playing this music live night-after-night, easily had to take its toll on the musicians. After three-odd years the group burned itself out! There will never be another Mahavishnu Orchestra.
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