Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

John Mclaughlin - Devotion

John Mclaughlin

Released 1970 on Douglas
Reviewed by Brandon Tenold, 11/05/2008ce

Recorded after he had left Miles Davis’ band but before he formed the mighty Mahavishnu Orchestra, “Devotion” remains an anomaly in John McLaughlin’s discography, a detour of “Satanic Majesties Request” proportions that, like “Satanic” with the Stones finds Sir John unapologetically diving headfirst into psychedelia. The way he handles his guitar is different from the head-spinning, odd-timed technical wizardry he would soon display with Mahavishnu, his playing earthier and blues-drenched, but still cosmic. Nevertheless, although his fingers may be oscillating at far below their maximum operating speed, make no mistake: his playing is still molten. Using a plethora of effects like wah, fuzz and phasers, “Devotion” finds McLaughlin at his trippiest and most head-banger friendly, with the warped, head shop poster cover art being a perfect indicator of the music within.

Using a backing band of organist Larry Young, bassist Billy Rich and Buddy Miles at the time of his Band of Gypsy’s peak on drums, the rhythm section is rock hard, with no horns or violins getting in the way. Rest assured there is no place for muzak here. Bucking the trend of leaving the most epic track for the end, “Devotion” kicks of with the track of the same name, which at over 11 minutes proves John and the boys mean business. An ominous riff from the bass and guitar kicks things off, the drums and organ joining in after a few measures. What follows is several minutes of interstellar improvisation featuring plenty of overdubbed guitar heroics from McLaughlin and Young’s celestial organ swirling about like a Bermuda Triangle whirlpool before going back to the opening riff and fading out.

The next two songs are the most riff-oriented, with “Dragon Song” featuring wah-wah drenched soloing over a heavy and hypnotic bass riff for much of the song. The title is accurate, as McLaughlin’s playing is fiery and intense. The next song, “Marbles” begins with a variety of strange sound effects straight out of a 50’s sci-fi movie. Suddenly, out of the psychotropic murk emerges Buddy Miles with a heavily echoed tribal rhythm before the most memorable (and danceable) riff on the album gets strummed out by McLaughlin and Rich. This song is the best example of why the album as a whole works so well, with the group locking into a killer groove while McLaughlin struts his stuff over top, never letting up until the song is over. It’s the sound of McLaughlin getting funky and it’s great.

Unfortunately, the last three songs don’t quite match the sheer awesomeness of the first. Despite containing some killer guitar playing, the band never locks into a groove as deep and sexy as “Marbles”; although “Don’t let the Dragon Eat Your Mother” gets the award for best song title on the album, (I guess one “Dragon Song” just wasn’t enough at the dawn of the progressive rock era). Perhaps they should have saved “Devotion” for the end after all, because although “Purpose of When” is an adequate closer, it doesn’t match the beginning’s powerful statement of intent.

Those who favour musical complexity from their fusion musicians might find “Devotion” a little too willing to worship at the twin alters of the one-chord vamp and 4/4 rhythm, but for those who can appreciate the brilliance of Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” and Black Sabbath’s greatest riffs, “Devotion” is possibly the greatest “Jazz” album ever cut. Although not as impressive as his work with Mahavishnu in that “holy crap that was fast” sort of way, for sheer grooviness, “Devotion” remains the high point of McLaughlin’s career.

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