All compositions by John McLaughlin
except Cosmic Strut by Narada Michael Walden
Recorded in December 1974
This is the most controversial Mahavishnu Orchestra album. John McLaughlin himself told me that he thinks this album is not only the best Mahavishnu album, it is his best album ever. Some other listeners (myself included) feel that "Visions..." is too incoherent to be a serious contender for the title of the best Mahavishnu album (I reserve that title for Birds Of Fire).
Truth be told, it really is difficult to deny the extraordinary qualities that fill almost every composition on this recording. Starting with McLaughlin's guitar playing -- on this album, it truly has that 'larger than life' quality that most of his fans crave. On almost all songs, the guitar sound has that extra bite which makes it appear simply irresistible (a 'bite' that is sorely missing from John's recent recordings).
The overall concept of the album is ambitious, very ambitious. It attempts to bridge styles and concepts that are so disparate, no one's ever even thought of connecting them. And, believe it or not, the mixture occasionally works!
This album also boasts some breakthrough
arrangements, especially with regards to the string quartet. Many subsequent
fusion recordings will be made that will be totally engrossed in this aspect
of "Visions..." (c.f. Chick Corea's onslaught of string and brass
arrangements on many of his albums throughout the seventies. Chick's
arrangements sound almost embarrassingly similar to those that embellish
"Visions...; the best examples would be Chick's "Leprechaun" and
"My Spanish Heart", however, "Musicmagic" and "Secret Agent" also come
1. Eternity's Breath Part
Eternity's Breath Part 2 (4:48)
Immediately after the introduction of the main vocal theme, the guitar and the violin sing their elaborate and intricate rendition of what is essentially the same melody, only stretched over several octaves. But then an even greater surprise occurs - the string quartet picks the melody up and makes it even more intricate. By now, the whole musical melange is approaching the boiling point. Suddenly, the band stops, and the guitar-violin duo is launched skywards at the speed of light. Before we get a chance to return to our senses, they are gone, leaving only the traces and echoes of their stratospheric high notes.
Part 2 begins, with a bare bones riff. The guitar joins in with a simple three note chromatic fill, as Walden breaks in with some of his trademark powerhouse drumming. To heighten the intensity of the ominous drama that is unfolding before us, McLaughlin cues in the brass section, which was miked extremely close, contributing to the overall harshness of the sound.
After several repeated riffs (and with a choir in the background chiming in enthusiastically), McLaughlin enters with his shimmering solo. His fingers caress the strings very smoothly, the sound is bouncing up and down like jello, and eventually he reaches the upper register. Now sparks begin to fly, as he pents up the volume and starts bending the strings, making the guitar yell and scream.
McLaughlin's solo finishes abruptly with an unexpectedly angular and fresh musical phrase. Now Ponty breaks in, with an extremely aggressive electric violin sound. At first, he stays in the deep end and then gradually climbs up to the middle register. He embellishes the underlying riff, and then, as if all of a sudden becoming stark raving mad, kicks into what probably is the most maddening violin playing ever recorded by the Mahavishnu Orchestra. His playing is simply berserk, ferocious, almost as if foaming on his mouth. The dragon has now reached the most frightening stage of utmost rage, breathing fire and scorching everything on its path.
Ponty's absolutely devastating solo (probably his best solo ever -- I'm only guessing here because I haven't heard all of his solos) denotes the musical pinnacle of this album. He somehow managed to steal the spotlight from McLaughlin, and that's quite an achievement.
After such exhaustive musical assertions by John and Ponty, one would expect things to deflate and to wind down, but that's far from what further unfolds in this composition. Instead of collapsing, after the scorching fire of Ponty's violin had leveled everything, the band picks up a triumphant melody, and re-enters with even higher might than in the beginning! The magnanimous lilting melody is executed with such gusto, while being underpinned with gorgeous grand piano chords, that it paints a crystal clear picture of magnificent ocean wave crushing onto a rocky shore. This turbulent scenery leads to the last entrance of the choir singing the ubiquitous Oh Lord, Supreme, Supreme... Things are now really getting blown out of proportion, everything is swelling beyond recognition, when McLaughlin and Ponty suddenly crank it up by playing the most intense, blazingly fast and utterly complicated, prolonged stretch of the initial serpentine melody. But this time, the melody had suffered so many contortions and is enriched in such a way that it's almost impossible to consciously follow its arabesque-like ornaments. And to make things even more unbelievable, as soon as the violin-guitar duo finishes this torturous run, the string quartet picks it up and rips it with even higher intensity and determination! If there was ever a demonstration of a superhuman musical execution, this will certainly be it.
Judging from all the superlatives we have
listed here, someone may be tempted to believe that this composition must
certainly be McLaughlin's best ever. Unfortunately, there are some problems
with this song that delegate it to John's less successful creations. I
will discuss only two problems here:
"Lila's Dance" opens with some of the most gorgeous piano etudes on record (if you pay closer attention, you'll be able to hear that the gorgeousness of the piano is partly due to the exceedingly high quality of the recording and sound engineering). It is a playful, upward mobile figure that just sounds yummy when played on a well-tempered grand piano.
Then the famous shimmering 'lick' enters. Even to this very day, McLaughlin's special cross-picking technique, as exhibited here, still poses considerable challenges to the majority of seasoned guitarists. Somehow, it is just too hard to emulate the particular phrasing he is employing here, and it is exactly the phrasing which makes it into such an irresistible lick.
As the twelve string guitar motif unfolds, Walden enters hitting his snare drum, and on the second round Armstrong jumps in with some very muscular bass playing that adds a healthy dose of adrenaline. The presence and the sound depth of his bass is awesome (too bad they couldn't engineer such lush bass sound on the original Mahavishnu Orchestra albums!)
The string quartet interrupts this dreamy scene with a tantalizing, unresolvable melody that seems to be climbing skywards with ever increasing fervor.
When the melody disappears in the stratosphere, the trio (guitar, drums and bass) create again a dreamy, tapestry-like ambience over which Ponty now begins to float with his electric violin. His playing is impeccable, imaginative and soulful. After soaring through the purple-bluish mist created by the deep, shimmering chords of the guitar, Ponty ends his outstanding solo by playing some special effect on his violin (probably embellished via some studio wizardry).
Again, the string quartet tantalizes us with the same agonizing melody, but this time it gets interrupted by a very harsh, 'street smart' funky guitar. Deep down, delightful pulsations of Armstrong's bass underlie the smoky, kick-ass atmosphere that is slowly being built up. After McLaughlin plays a string of his legendary arpeggios on the twelve string guitar, Walden abruptly jumps in while McLaughlin switches to a raunchy six string guitar for one the nastiest solos he's ever recorded. His guitar simply bites, like a poisonous snake. His sound is nearly perfect, driven to the limits of distortion. His fingerwork is out of sight, as he plays some impossible phrases that pierce our ears. In the background, Walden unleashes his drums and goes berserk. One of the most intense moments McLaughlin has ever recorded!
As soon as his solo dissipates, a marvelous melody is introduced to keep the momentum going. This melody is a sheer wonder to behold, both from the formal standpoint and from the gut-feel standpoint. It is in total disarray with the underlying groove. The constituent phrases are choppy, jerky, very angular and dissonant. Rhythmically, it would be virtually impossible to imagine the meter that would be more at odds with the main meter of this segment, and yet the whole thing miraculously hangs together. Not only that, it really rocks, and it makes our hair stand on its end. Truly one of the most magical moments on this album.
After this magical episode, the band rehashes
the main ascending melody, blissfully sustaining the last and the highest
note, until everything falls back onto the opening, shimmering cross-picking
arpeggio. This time, instead of the yearning and assertive violin licks,
the string quartet repeatedly plays beautiful riffs. Finally, the flow
of the orchestra dies out, and the song ends with the lush grand piano
Eventually, the 'steam roller' effect, produced by this heavy rocking, dissipates and the band closes with the same melody that opened this track.
This is not the first time McLaughlin has
tried his hand on funky grooves (his first official funk can be heard on
the marvelous "Vision Is A Naked Sword" from Apocalypse).
When "Visions..." was released, some critics interpreted the title of this
number as an attack on Billy Cobham (who was, at that time, knee-deep
in producing funky grooves). I would say that this interpretation is too
vulgar to be considered seriously. It sounds more like the band was simply
enjoying themselves going over those funky clichés with utter abandon.
Also, the sheer romanticism of the string quartet that gushes forth after the opening twelve string acoustic arpeggios and the main melody, was something that conjured up the images of youth, first love, and first misunderstanding.
The solemn ecstasy of the violin solo, albeit presented in the typical classical fashion (amounting to the cliché, if you will), always had the power to give me goose bumps and to perform some sort of a cleansing ritual on my soul.
The music slowly dies out, letting the
birdsong emerge once again.
When the slowly and deliberately climbing melody exhausts all the conceivable heights, it disappears into the void, leaving an empty silence that McLaughlin's fabulous twelve string playing is to fill up. He begins tentatively, as if feeling his whereabouts in total darkness. But soon the sparks start to fly, and with each vigorous gesture, he can see farther and farther. His faith rises, it shines beyond belief.
Suddenly, he breaks into the most virile
playing ever heard on the twelve string electric guitar. It's the most
exciting rhythm guitar playing imaginable. The meter is uneven, the chords
are unidentifiable. The slurs and little accidentals reveal the true Master
of the instrument. And before too long, the whole sky is lit with his burning
faith. The valiant drums announce the big finale, where the whole band
jumps in with the most intricate melody, played at impossible tempo. The
melody stops, as if being cut off, only to be continued by McLaughlin's
otherworldly laughter. The final effect is absolutely unreal!
Walden's composition is surprisingly good. It withstands the test of time, and is a pleasure to listen to today (despite the substantial evolution of funk in the past 25 years). What's especially attractive to my ears is its well constructed melody and the incredibly agile and rubber-like solo by McLaughlin.
The song opens with some screeching, dissonant chords. Soon, this unpleasantness is replaced by a very appealing funky groove, thanks to Armstrong's fabulous bass work and Walden's muscular drumming. To underline the tension and to dramatize the whole song, Walden skillfully employs the brass section.
The melody, played mostly by Ponty (with possibly McLaughlin joining in unison on his modulated guitar), begins its teasing, wiggly ascent. After the melody is repeated, a very nice tag, loaded with emotion, leads perfectly into McLaughlin's solo.
And what a solo it is! Popping, futuristic, difficult to follow but at the same time so pleasing to the ear. There is nothing mellow in his playing, and the modulated sound gets to be real angry at moments, and yet the overall effect is mesmerizing.
Next comes Ponty, with one of his
staple solos, this time embellished by the battery of raucous brass section.
Overall, this solo is a bit disappointing, especially after McLaughlin's
devastating performance. The band closes this piece by hitting the highest
possible note. That leads directly to:
But the main melody is just a stimulus for McLaughlin and Ponty to deliver their hottest improvisational lines. Both musicians pass this test with flying colors, so much so that it's impossible to imagine any other musician being able to fill in their shoes on such an occasion. The display of sheer musical pyrotechnics is simply stunning!
There is something to be said about Walden's drumming here, and in general. McLaughlin has repeatedly stressed that what he is looking to get from drums is "passion". Certainly, one could hardly ask for more passion than what he managed to get from Billy Cobham's drumming during the heyday of Mahavishnu Orchestra. But the passion Walden brings to Mahavishnu recordings is also remarkable. Sure enough, it is very different from Cobham's passion, but it has more of an ecstasy feel in it. One of the reasons for this may be in the fact that, at that time, Walden belonged to the same confessional group as his band leader (hence his devotional name, Narada). The dense and intense world of religious devotion and ecstasy, that McLaughlin was immersed in at that time, was much more familiar to his peer Narada than it could have ever been to his former drummer, Cobham. After the original Mahavishnu breakup, Cobham had, on more than one occasion, expressed his uneasiness with McLaughlin's fiery devotion to spirituality. Cobham actually cared to comment how even some of the titles of the Mahavishnu compositions sounded contrived to him (he had illustrated this observation by citing "Celestial Terrestrial Commuters"). This goes to show how little Cobham was able to actually appreciate John's work during the Mahavishnu era.
Walden is, of course, a completely
different story, which is why we can feel such strong spiritual bond in
the interplay between him and McLaughlin.
The bass guitar quietly joins with a sedated, descending lick. Electric guitar and electric violin state the melody as if walking on the eggshells. Suddenly, Walden startles us with his singing. This is his first solo vocal performance, and he does a much better job than on the subsequent Mahavishnu album (Inner Worlds). At least, he's not affecting as much as he will be doing later on.
Again, the lyrics are purely devotional. This ballad sounds more as if it belongs on Santana's "Welcome" disc, than on a Mahavishnu album.
The lethargic atmosphere is briefly lifted
by a very nice flute solo, but soon afterwards things drop back to the
'nod off' mode, and before you know it, the piece slowly fades away.
Ponty had complained that McLaughlin
had signed this 'composition' although he had nothing to do with it --
it was strictly Ponty's own improvisation and fiddling around. That
'plagiarism' (in the spirit of McLaughlin's teacher, Miles Davis)
may be one of the main reasons why Ponty had left the group immediately
after this album was released.
The piece begins with an ominous, grumbling chord. Walden's cymbals provide the continuity between the repeated deep grumbles coming from the guitar. A heavily distorted guitar interrupts the status quo, spewing angular, angry statements. The jagged feeling gets underlined by Walden's unevenly distributed rhythmic patterns, before the guitar and the drums lock horns and engage in a typical Mahavishnu battle.
The fierce battle drags on, but the overall effect is hypnotizing. It would be very difficult to classify this type of music. It is free and abstract, and at the same time very earthy and bluesy. But the awesome musical prowess of both players is what gives it an added freedom, making it very fresh and totally surprising.
When the bass finally joins them, the music starts flowing more evenly, having now more recognizable regularity to it. However, within the confines of this order, McLaughlin and Walden continue to deliver surprisingly free and fresh lines. This is especially true when it comes to their fantastic interplay -- at times the listener feels as if being on a roller coaster, going unpredictably up and down while, at the same time, going round and round in the strictly predictable circles.
This ride home is indeed a marvelous achievement,
one of the highlights of this album. It ends abruptly, on a high note,
as if cut off by scissors. However, the ride will be continued in a remarkably
similar fashion on their following album, Inner