All compositions by John McLaughlin
Quite possibly the pinnacle of John McLaughlin's opus. If there is one recording by McLaughlin that you must have, this is it. Many factors have converged to create a fertile ground for this amazing gem. The Orchestra itself was at the time of recording this album at the absolute height of their creativity and the amount of positive energy that they were disseminating all over the world had reached the peak of the "white heat" intensity. Even if we put everything else aside, just listening to McLaughlin's guitar work on this album will leave us gaping in disbelief -- as one musician put it, every note that he plays here sounds like he's praying! Every bent string, every screaming note played by McLaughlin is a cry sent to the inconceivable spirit; every brunt of the deeply voiced, shimmering guitar chord is a prayer in earnest devotion to the spirit who, alone, can untie every knot and melt every sadness.
All ten compositions are nothing short of amazing. The barrage that opens up with the "Birds Of Fire" never really lets up; after the finishing screams of the last piece ("Resolution") fade away, we are left totally drained (emotionally and physically). The whole album plays like one incredibly coherent, amazingly dense and constantly changing melange of some undefinable, agonizingly aspiring mass of sounds.
Another highlight of this musical creation
is Billy Cobham's drumming. It is totally fresh, unheard of, but
at the same time strictly in function of the overall soundscape. He manages
to literally keep the band hanging together even in the most critical and
1. Birds Of Fire (5:41)
The second time around Hammer joins in with his Mini Moog (which sounds dangerously like an electric guitar). The terrain is even more slippery than it was for John. Cobham sounds like he's totally oblivious to any meter and is just letting everything, any sense of rhythmic order, fall through the cracks. The Moog moans and groans. Suddenly, it manages to break free. It climbs up at the blinding speed, and then, it starts screaming and trembling like a raw nerve. The pain, the agony is more than anyone could withstand.
Everyone jumps in for the final reiteration
of the melody. They get catapulted into the stratosphere for the last time,
and then, as everybody safely parachutes back to earth, Cobham picks
up a complex groove and the post-partum jamming ensues. The band fades
out with some weird screechy noises coming from the keyboards and the violin.
Whew... what a ride!
The piece starts with a barely audible drone coming from the keyboards. The equally quiet electric piano introduces the basic chord progression. This intro is a real gem. It is masterfully executed in a honky-tonk vein. To be able to fully appreciate the elasticity of Hammer's playing, it is best to listen to it by cranking up the volume as high as possible.
The "alley cat" vibe that was introduced by Hammer gets picked up by the band. Most prominent are the drums and the bass. They nail down the staggering tempo while Hammer (no pun intended) noodles and doodles on top of the rock solid foundation. McLaughlin states the bare bones power chords on his double-neck Gibson (the chords are executed on the twelve-string neck). Everything floats up in suspension, shaking and trembling like a bowl of jelly. This is a formidable sight to behold. Cobham announces the switch to the main melody by pounding his kit with all his might.
Then McLaughlin and Goodman unleash the melody. And what a melody it is! It's something like Django meets Ornette Coleman via Dixieland rag, or something like that. It definitely has a very far out feel to it.
The sneaky, wiggly melody spins our heads around for several turns. Finally, everything drops to the ground, and Hammer nails everyone (this time pun is intended) to stop in their tracks and stand still with his descending lick. Now a new, even more surprising twist occurs: Goodman's violin solo executed by plucking the strings. The sound he is getting with this special technique is marvelous, he's even bending his strings in order to get the more "dirty", bluesy, down-to-earth homey sound. Meanwhile, Hammer and McLaughlin are backing him discreetly with some amazingly fresh and unexpected licks.
When Goodman starts nearing the end of his soulful reciting, Cobham kicks in with such might, that it has to startle everyone. Before we know it, he releases his trademark torrent of the most macho drumming ever heard on record. Underneath this elemental rage, McLaughlin is keeping the flames going, by darting with some brief dragon-like fire breathing screeches. Finally, the hurricane drumming subsides, and we get to be treated to the most provocative and jagged guitar solo imaginable. It's a roller coaster ride that you'll remember for the rest of your life. Never before nor after has McLaughlin delivered such an original solo. Words simply fail me now...
Alas, the solo of such immeasurable intensity
cannot last for long, and before we realize what was it that hit us, we're
back into the groove, listening to the band giving 110% to deliver the
closing melody. This time, it sounds much more hurried, conveying much
less of an "alley cat" feel. But, that's exactly what we need. We need
to see the end of this hurricane, we need to take a deep breath.
Nevertheless, just by listening to his playing on these songs, one could swear that Billy is in it with his whole heart. Just pay close attention to the unmatched enthusiasm that simply oozes from his drum intro to this "frivolously" titled piece.
This composition is actually a transformed and revamped "Binkey's Beam" that was originally recorded in 1969 (Extrapolation). The original bass lick is drastically simplified, and the melody is executed at a much faster tempo, which lends it a totally different outlook. At first, it's even difficult to realize that it's basically the same melody; one is simply left with the feeling that something in there sounds familiar. Only later on it may dawn on us that it's actually the good old "Binkey's Beam".
After the frantically executed main melody, the band stops kind of in mid-air, to create some space for Hammer and his avalanche-like synthesizer solo. Mixed very prominently in the central area of the stereo spectrum, his synth sounds like a trumpet or a trombone on steroids. It is actually very gorgeous, with masterfully executed whiplashes and it definitely carries with it tons of bite. Hammer's playing on this track is as hot as a molten lava. Eleven out of ten stars!
While Jan is sending his barrage fire in every direction simultaneously, Cobham and Laird are cooking and stewing underneath, producing a tightly knit tissue of pulsating organic mass. It is absolutely staggering to hear Cobham weaving his fractals-like patterns that defy any attempt to detect the underlying beat, or any recognizable rhyme or reason for that matter. His bewildering drumming patterns continue throughout this piece, interspersed with occasional breaks.
After the synth solo, the band picks up
the opening lick and then John and Jerry begin their famous tradin'
fours thing. John's playing is top-notch, displaying the impeccable taste.
His invigorating lines propel Goodman into the unexpected heights
of electric violin playing. The notes John is firing are ricocheting off
the other instruments, while Jerry gets on the ball and sends those
volleys back to where they are coming from. Soon, Goodman gets to
be in the lead, with McLaughlin echoing the violin's phrases as well as
Cobham's violent breaks. The exchange heats up; now they are not
trading fours, they are trading twos (instead of letting the other soloist
formulate his "sentence" in the space of four bars, they constrain themselves
to two bars only). The steam is rising, and everything reaches a boiling
point. Now they've stopped trading their lines, they got entangled in each
other's phrasings, they are playing their lines simultaneously. When the
guitar reaches the bursting point of simply exploding like a machine gun,
they jump into the unison barrage of the highly rhythmical, repetitive
melody. When the release is reached, Hammer rips through with his
"trombone on steroids" synthesizer, delivering one of the most intense
scarlet sounds that I've heard (assuming that sounds could be approximately
codified via colors). The guitar and violin duo repeat the rhythmically
punctuated melody, and then the synth starts its wailing at an even higher
pitch. Finally, when the unison melody returns, it does not let up, but
instead starts building up the crescendo, joined by the synthesizer, and
everything balloons very quickly into the ascending pattern that explodes
into myriad of colors, while the bass remains laying on the floor, pulsating,
and utterly depleted. Bravo!
When the long-winded melody is played out, McLaughlin kicks into an overdrive and delivers his trademark blistering solo. As is usual, he manages to cover the whole fretboard in amazingly little time, executing extremely complex runs with frightening precision and clarity. In the background, Hammer plays some interesting rhythmical patterns, ideal for fueling John's imagination. The overall impression is that of someone searching frantically, being overwhelmed with some romantic yearning in the midst of the full spring bloom (or, at least, that's the picture that tends to pop in my mind while I'm listening to it)
After John's solo, they repeat the middle portion of the melody, and then intensify the already dense rhythmic and harmonic structure by weaving quick, interlocking lines. Hammer plays beautiful right hand phrases on the piano (almost folk-like lines), while John throbs in the background on his guitar.
Finally, they sign off with a bit slower
rendition of the melody, playing it solemnly, and dropping the last tear
when they simultaneously reach the highest and the deepest note of the
The overall sound gravitates toward the
violin; it actually sounds as if Goodman overdubbed himself many
times over, thus creating the rich, dense sound of many violins playing
in unison. The guitar participates by only arpeggiating simple harmonies
in the background, with the electric piano bubbling up with those teary,
crystal clear runs. But the real life blood of this piece is to be heard
in Cobham's masterful drumming. His impeccable control of pulse
and his inspired playing with the tension/release factors is what keeps
propelling this single-minded, monotone composition to those ever ascending
heights. As the piece progresses, the melody never eases up, but gets hotter
and hotter, only to reach hysterical plateaus towards the very end. This
short piece is absolutely the most lyrical, meditative composition on the
This is the most intense performance on the whole album. From the very beginning, every musician simply puts his 110% into it. The framework of this collective improv is so refreshingly unexpected and at the same time solid, that the musicians felt extremely inspired to contribute some of the best improvised lines ever recorded.
By now, it should come as no surprise to hear the song open with an exquisitely crafted melody. It wiggles all over the place, it soars, it crashes and burns, it makes our heads spin. The most brilliant of all is, beyond a trace of a doubt, the guitar work. Completely disarming in its originality, McLaughlin's treatment of the electric guitar on this piece leaves us flabbergasted. It is the pinnacle of the whole album. It is also beyond the reach of mere words -- you must hear it to be able to experience the depths of McLaughlin's genius.
The total freedom within this marvelous framework is explored by all the musicians. First, Rick Laird delivers his brilliant bass solo. What simplicity, what efficiency! In the background, McLaughlin and Hammer work marvels, supporting Rick all the way to the top. One would be hard pressed to find a recording where one could hear so much inventive comping on the guitar as there is on this song.
When all of a sudden McLaughlin kicks in with his guitar screaming at the top of its lungs, everyone immediately follows by intensifying their efforts. Now the "round Robin" procedure begins to unfold. McLaughlin's statement gets to be followed by Goodman's violin, which is in turn continued by Hammer's synth. Then, back to McLaughlin, and so the battle wages on. It's an amazing sight to behold. Essentially, it's "trading two's" pattern (each player gets a space of two bars to say, or sing, or dance something). In the depths of the background, Cobham and Laird are cooking and steaming, and with each new round the ominous, nasty brew rises more alarmingly toward the surface. Before too long, everyone doubles their efforts. The "trading two's" deal drops away and they jump into the "trading one's" (each musician gets only one bar to craft their screams). As the screams intensify, all etiquette falls by the waysides and now they are interrupting each other, eager to express something of utmost urgency. Pretty soon it turns into a melange of overlapping screams and screechy noises. The tension of the cacophony is unbearable. And then the whole cauldron explodes, clearing the space for Cobham's drum solo.
This solo fits perfectly with the rest of the improvisations in this piece. It is quite a lengthy drum solo, displaying some extremely complex patterns. It is also an amazingly busy solo, and because I'm not a drum, I can't really analyze it. All I can say about this solo is that it's very attractive and quite appealing in the context of this elaborate piece.
When the drum solo is over, the band reconvenes with some apparently disorganized attempts to re-state the opening lick. Soon they manage to get in synch, and then unleash a barrage of hysterical licks that sound like the screams of some mythological creature. The piece ends when everybody lets go and rapidly repeats the main melody.
Long, sustained notes played by the violin and the guitar introduce the melody. The melody itself is also inordinately long. It breathes slowly, sneaking around the rock-solid deep bass pulsations, climbing up very gradually. Jerry's violin sound and John's guitar sound are matched almost perfectly. It's a deep, rich sound (almost purplish in color) with just a little bit of distortion. As the melody slowly unfolds and the tension creeps up, the drumming intensifies. Finally, it bursts into an all out assault by the whole band. They play the agony in unison, rising and falling back, like a giant dragon who is wounded and is breathing in pain.
When the agony subsides a bit, and the band quiets down, Hammer introduces his flute-like synth solo. This solo contains some breathtaking playing, certainly the best improvisation ever by Hammer. After his fountain-like solo fades away, the band returns to reiterate the long melody, this time making it sound even more somber and solemn, and then finishes off with a big crescendo of shimmering sound.
All of a sudden, as if emerging from the dense fog, a crystal clear and squeaky clean world emerges. Bright sunshine, gorgeous flowers and lush green vegetation make your heart skip with joy. Complete bliss overflows you as you watch butterflies flutter by. Razor sharp guitar and drumming pave the way for the joyous melody played by the violin. Jerry sounds like he's choking on his own tears, being overjoyed. Such an unmatched clarity of vision!
The band had executed this growing uneasiness
with masterful precision. The sound coloring (strangely mirroring the soundscape
on "One Word") matches perfectly the underlying tension. The indisputable
star of this album, Billy Cobham, shines brighter than the others
on this song too.