All compositions by John McLaughlin
This is a sensational recording, both from a historical perspective and from a purely musical perspective. The groundbreaking work, laid out by McLaughlin and his Orchestra, apparently appeared out of nowhere. McLaughlin has almost single-handedly managed to invent the whole new musical genre (which never got to be properly named -- all the labels proposed over time, like jazz-rock, fusion, etc. couldn't really hit the mark.) The preparatory work that was going on for more than two years, instigated by Miles Davis, had flourished and took a definitive shape in this album.
Still, surprising as it may sound, this
is not McLaughlin's best creation (I propose that his best work is Birds
Of Fire which got released a year later). But it's pretty darn close
to being one of the best recordings in recent history. If nothing else,
the level of sheer energy captured on tape is still unsurpassed.
1. Meeting of The Spirits
McLaughlin interrupts the flow of this torrent by executing a precise lick rehashed from his contribution to Miles' "Jack Johnson" (later on, he will carry this lick to its higher ramifications in the "Mind Ecology" on Natural Elements) After him and Billy repeat the whole pattern once again, he plays a little 'teaser', announcing the hurricane that's coming around the corner. The guitar wails, and squirms, strings bent to maximum. All of a sudden, an abrupt and disjointed break -- a choppy lick which immediately opens into the totally different landscape.
A handsome ostinato, played by the bass and the violin, introduces the stretch reserved for prolonged jamming. Goodman jumps in first. This time, his violin gets a similar 'teary' sound treatment, reminiscent of Hammer's 'teary' keyboard sound from the previous composition. However, this is totally out of context in this piece, because nothing is audible but the pulsation of the raw energy. No room for subtle emotions here!
Jerry gets enough time to really play to his heart's content. His virtuosity gets to be showcased in a real breathtaking manner. The ending of his stretch is announced by an awkward little snipped played by the electric piano, introducing the main melody for the first time. Then, the guitar joins in, this time much more assertively. Now is the time for Jan to speak his mind.
Rather than trying to out dazzle Jerry's virtuosity, Hammer makes a much wiser choice. He starts by simply sticking to the underlying ostinato, but quickly shifts gears towards producing the unexpected sound effects, sounding as if he's swallowed some magic concoction (coming from a B production movie, like "Flubber") The bouncy, irresistibly funny burps and gargles are a delight to listen to. They also make intelligent comments on the whole craze that's unraveling here. When the last bubble has been regurgitated by his keyboard, the band abruptly changes direction and shifts into an overdrive.
McLaughlin kicks in, sounding like a herd of stampeding elephants. It is hard to imagine the excitement, the raw energy and the devastation that his guitar brings into the open, without actually hearing this piece. As the underlying pulsation is starting to get tighter and tighter, the guitar is being simply carried away by the enormous tsunami. But, not without a fight. McLaughlin's fingers travel across the fretboard with frightening speed, his lick are torturously repetitive, and with each repetition they drive the nail harder into our skulls. Eventually, they resort to repeating the middle melody, each time extending the number of repeated licks, until the listener feels that something must be wrong with the sound carrier (I remember the first time I heard this, I thought that my stylus got stuck in the vinyl groove!)
But, the madness is not over yet. Everything
converges to one spot, with the guitar angrily beating the simplest possible
power riff, while Cobham going berserk on his drum kit. This leads
to the opening duel, only now it is even more heated than it was at the
beginning (if one can believe that this was possible). Finally, the band
joins in to conclude with the jittery, angular fragment of a melody.
The calm and meditative atmosphere is just a backdrop for some of the most intense burning on the acoustic guitar ever recorded. McLaughlin simply assaults his guitar, almost to the point where you feel that a string or two must break. Goodman's violin playing is indeed idyllic, very emotional and warm, while Hammer's grand piano (overdubbed) supplies a magnificent waterfall of pure heartfelt prayers.
The whole structure is very loose, rambling and blabbering like a mountain brook. Never before or after has McLaughlin attempted to create such an original piece of pastoral music (his "Thousand Island Park" from Birds Of Fire and his "Pastoral" from Visions Of The Emerald Beyond explore completely different venues of acoustic expressiveness). As the title of this composition sublimely suggests, this exploration is about the impossibility of certain human states -- there cannot be any lotuses on Irish streams, and yet... he can truly see them. This impossibility is mesmerizing, and we can feel this in their beautiful music (for a very interesting and unexpected angle on this composition, contributed by Patrik McArdle, click here).
It is characteristic of this piece that
it represents the disjointedness of the inner state of mind of its author
by its equally disjointed musical structure. Separated into several clearly
outlined "episodes", this composition always retains certain tentative
feel of not being quite sure where it wants to go. This structure provides
a perfect vessel for McLaughlin to carry out his blinding torrent of gushing
The pace is much more hurried than in the "Meeting Of The Spirits". The piece opens with a busy, thunderous drumming, something only Billy Cobham could deliver. If listened at a sufficiently loud volume, his bass drums threaten to shred the woofers. But, if you ask me, it's a risk worth taking -- the only way to really experience this album is at the volume levels higher than usual.
In the second part of the drumming intro, the tambourine joins in (probably overdubbed by Cobham), which gives the whole hurried feeling an additional boost. McLaughlin and the rest of the band break in, playing a riff that closely mimics the drumming pattern. They insist on repeating the riff over and over, until the hectic tempo reaches an impasse, and the rhythm section dissipates, flying through the air like crash dummies when released upon the impact.
McLaughlin and Goodman then join forces in support of a typical early Mahavishnu melody that sounds like a crossover between the "Meeting Of The Spirits" main melody snippet and the introductory melody of "Dawn". Also, it is important to note that the tonal palette of the guitar/violin unison is identical to the palette on the above mentioned songs.
As soon as that melody is stated, a new, ascending melody follows. This time, it sounds similar to the middle section melody of the "Meeting Of The Spirits". The same yearning, agonizing pain, the attempt to reach the salvation. The final, triumphant cry of the guitar/violin duo opens up into the free form forceful solo by McLaughlin.
This is McLaughlin's longest solo on the whole album. When viewed in its entirety, it is truly a remarkable thing. During this solo, John can be seen stepping over some of the roughest musical terrain ever conceived. No wonder his lines are so jagged, disjointed, to the point where we can almost hear his ligaments and bones cracking under the pressure. If we follow closely his elaboration of the basically simple, bare bones riff, it will be that much more formidable to see how many inventive lines he was able to muster from something so simple. But, in order to accomplish that, he was forced to engage in the toughest manual labor on his guitar -- we can hear him cooking and steaming, panting and trying to catch his breath. John is right in the middle of this volcano, taking care of things at hand like only he can.
We must not overlook the marvelous contribution by Rick Laird, whose mind-blowing bass lines serve to propel McLaughlin to the ever higher levels of improvisation. Laird's bottom-line pulsations are very palpable, swinging like an ominous pendulum, taking everything along in their sweeping movement. Even Cobham's stubborn torrent of odd-metered grooves are bent around those bottom-line pulsations.
When finally, completely out of breath, McLaughlin collapses after conquering his demons, the mixture of the melodies played in unison (described at the beginning) resumes, and then the whole band drifts into a different terrain. This time, the groove is less gloomy, it is bouncier and very joyous. Gradually, Hammer's keyboards emerge from the sound melange, carving brightly outlined, long winded melody. As his melody wiggles and bounces off the rhythmic patterns, the band fades out.
Both this song, and its mirror song, deal with the problem of delusion (if you recall, "Dawn" depicts the pain of the struggle in trying to wake up from a seductive, but harmful attachment to the phantom world of a dream). In this case, the title is even more explicit -- Maya is a Hindu goddess of delusion. She weaves the seductive web of deceit, from which it becomes almost impossible to liberate oneself.
The opening chords sound much gloomier and more onerous than in "Dawn". The distortion level of the guitar tone borders on sheer ugliness. The harmonies are dissonant (although loosely based on the perennial 12 bar blues progression), to the point of breaking the tonal mold. The intro drags on and on, creating a frustrating, unpleasant atmosphere. The drums and the bass eventually join in, only to amplify the discord and the overall ugliness.
When the melody begins to shape up, it sounds very torturous. Clearly, it's that ever-present yearning melody, only this time it can't really aspire, it is easily dragged down into the mud. After several attempts to soar, the melody nose-dives into the dirt, bringing everyone with it, and the band locks into one of the dirtiest, grittiest honky-tonk grooves. Rock on!
Now it's Goodman's turn to show how sticky, slimy and alive his violin can really get. He plunges into this primordial slimy mass with all his being, and with complete abandon. Using his wah-wah pedal, he delivers what could possibly be one of his best solos ever (quite reminiscent of Miles's electric trumpet work on his ode to ugliness, "Live/Evil"). This segment illustrates one of the most stellar aspects of the legendary Mahavishnu raves. The barely controllable situation is amplified by Goodman's ferocious thrashing. Everything gets to be violated here: the tonal center is gone, the tone is distorted beyond any recognition, the snake-like wiggling of the bold intervallic leaps clashing head-on with the supporting melodies played by the guitar and the keyboards, while the rhythm section is on one of its most fluid trips -- they keep changing the meter almost ever couple of bars. Any form of politeness has been long ago forgotten -- everyone in there joyfully steps on everyone else's toes. But the overall result of this chaos is magnificent.
After Jerry's sleazy rave, everybody picks up the simple trailer melody and joins in one more time for a round of die-hard rocking, before the burst of awakening rips the whole charade to pieces. Well, they've rocked the boat too hard this time!
McLaughlin appears out of nowhere, playing the most sobering guitar licks imaginable. He cuts through the crap like a knife cutting through butter. The rocking pendulum pattern is still discernible underneath, but is now transformed into a much jazzier groove. Cobham is doing a marvelous job supporting McLaughlin's tour de force. As for McLaughlin himself, it is absolutely impossible to put his determined, single-minded musical statement into words. There simply isn't anything I could compare it with. It can only be understood by hearing it.
Finally, the whole band joins forces (and
there is even some overdubbing) to create a post festum melange
of juxtaposed patterns that borders on cacophony. This hot, steamy jungle
of cries and shrieks reaches a full climax just a second before everything
falls apart. The last thing we can hear is a single grotesque note coming
from a plucked violin string. Quite an appropriate ending.
The simple arpeggio, introduced on the guitar, provides the underlying pattern that will stretch throughout the whole song. At various times, various instruments will comment on this pattern, trying to analyze it, to embellish it, or simply to rip it apart. This musical exercise showcases some very well thought out playing, primarily by Cobham.
Still, it's the weakest (by far) composition
on the whole album.
The piece opens with what sounds like a jumbo jet taking off. The searing, smoking sound is coming from the guitar/violin/keyboards/bass quartet playing this ascending pentatonic lick at a finger-breaking velocity. This lick is also backed up by Cobham's maddening drumming. A short interlude on the drums lets everyone catch their second breath before they unleash another assault. Then, the violin solo ensues.
While Jerry is playing his brains out, the underlying tempo is not showing any signs of letting up. The sound of his violin is identical to the violin sound on "The Noonward Race", and the phrases he's playing are very similar in both pieces. Only in this song, he plays it with the double speed.
Jerry's solo is very short, and before anybody expects it, the break-neck frantic melody is back. After repeating the melody, the band relaxes the strenuous approach and slips into a more comfortable bouncy groove. This serves as an ideal backing for Hammer's 'Alladin's Magic Lamp' solo. The sound of his keyboard is very oriental, and as the solo progresses it gradually deteriorates to the point of turning into the screeching noise at the very end. Meanwhile, Cobham is intensifying his pendulum pattern. The overall impression is a middle of a hectic day in the bustling airport in Calcutta.
After Jan's solo, they play the
melody again. Then, John makes his reprise of the elephant herd stampeding
(see the description of "The Noonward Race"), only this time it is played
so much faster that it sounds like complete madness. What John is playing
in this solo is sheer passion. We can almost see his fingers flying over
the fretboard at blinding speed. This awakening brought with it the release
of much more energy than anyone believed was humanly possible.
Again, they replay the melody, and then
they back out to let Cobham do his solo bit. What a marvel of a
drum solo that is. Succinct and to the point, he manages to reiterate the
complicated melody in this painfully short solo. Finally, everybody returns
for a grand finale, where they unleash the most distorted, searing sound
when they take off and disappear out of sight, up, up, high in the sky.