(All Album Reviews by Sean)
If The Inner Mounting Flame was ground zero for the fusion explosion, Birds of Fire was the next logical step for the Mahavishnu Orchestra. An evolution of sorts and a cooling at the same time.
Birds of Fire is a much different album than it's predecessor. Inner was a virtual explosion of sound coming at the listener. Some find that quality to be Maha's best feature and regard Inner as the band's pinnacle. Others see it more as a bit of a wankfest, an album that fatigues the listener after three or four numbers. If you fall into that category, or anywhere close to it, Birds will strike your ears very differently. This is a very dynamic lp. The arrangements on this album are the bands most intricate- but they are not claustrophobic. A big step forward?? I'd like to think so.
Sure there is plenty of muscular chops flexing going on, but on this album each member has more room as they solo, rather than everyone going at it all at once, ala Inner. Because of this what we get is a more balanced album, still firey, but tempered. This album introduces dynamics into the band's vocabulary, something only hinted at in the onslaught known as The Inner Mounting Flame. Actually this album has more in common with an album a different version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra would make in a few years, Visions of the Emerald Beyond. They seem similar in countour and character, to this listener anyway.
There are some similarities between the compositions here and on the bands debut. The opener, "Birds of Fire" bears more than a passing resemblance to Inner's opener, "Meeting of the Spirits"- which is no doubt a template for many tunes to come. A odd chordal arpeggio gives way to some amazing linear lines on "Birds of Fire". This tune lives up to it's name. For me though, the next few tunes really allow Birds stand on it's own.
"Miles Beyond" is a cover of a Miles Davis number. Here it gets a reworking that makes it seem as if it is this bands own composition. The call and response parts here between violinist Jerry Goodman and guitarist John McLaughlin are breathtaking to say the least. "Celestial Terrestrial Commuters" continues this breathtaking ride. Keyboardist Jan Hammer spins some dazzling moog lines and spits solos back and forth between him and McLaughlin like hot potatos.
Next we get 30 secs of spacey noise known as "Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love", which signals that something different is coming. It arrives in the form of a duet between piano and acoustic guitar- "Thousand Island Park". I have heard more inspired acoustic shredding from JM, but this hits the spot at this point of the album. Nice change of dynamics.
I won't attempt to describe the rest of the tunes on here. Rest assured the remainder of this album serves up some of the groups best compositions and maybe one or two that are not- you decide. Nevertheless, if you are a fan of 70's fusion, this album is ESSENTIAL!
PS I can't close this without pointing out that drummer Billy Cobham absolutely smokes on this album! As per usual, but it all seems so much more when he has players like JM to play off of. And playing amazing compositions like the ones here on Birds of Fire.