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Mahavishnu Orchestra - The Inner Mounting Flame

Mahavishnu Orchestra
The Inner Mounting Flame

Released 1971 on Columbia/Legacy
Reviewed by Brandon Tenold, 24/07/2008ce

The word “fusion” is one of the most maligned in music, its status after the punk era eventually descending into the obscene for many people who consider themselves hip to good music. After years of hearing the soulless, overproduced bits of grocery shopping music best epitomized by the abortion known as Kenny G, it’s hard to blame them.

But this was not always the case. At the end of the sixties, musicians from both sides of the rock/jazz fence found themselves increasingly interested in finding a common ground, and albums such as Frank Zappa`s ``Hot Rats`` and virtually everything Miles Davis made from 1969 to 1975 contain some truly incredible music. One of the best (and, at least at first, most ``rock``) groups that defined this music was the Mahavishnu Orchestra, led by Davis protégé and guitar deity John McLaughlin, a man so humble as to never raise his voice on stage yet so aware of his own mystical status as a musician to christen himself ``Mahavishnu John McLaughlin``. There had been guitar superheroes before him, but dear old John was the first one to have a name that sounded like he’d stepped straight out of an issue of Doctor Strange.

McLaughlin had shown himself to be a formidable guitarist on Davis albums like ``Bitches Brew`` and ``Tribute to Jack Johnson`` as well as his own solo albums, but it was on the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s first album ``The Inner Mounting Flame`` that the full extent of his abilities was shown. Honing his fingers to almost machine-like levels of speed and precision and fully embracing Marshall-stack fuelled volume, distortion and feedback, ``The Inner Mounting Flame`` contained some of the most aggressive guitar work ever heard up until that point. Even today, bedroom guitar-muso`s who can’t appreciate the blues-based dinosaurs of the hippy era might find themselves tipping their hat to McLaughlin’s magic fingers. Still, his skill would mean little if he didn’t have a group that could match him, so he set out finding similarly jazz-trained players who were ready to rock out. I’ve already compared McLaughlin to a superhero, so I might as well give the others the same treatment: On drums, Billy Cobham, a Panamanian drummer with the power of 10 Ginger Bakers! On bass, Rick Laird, solid as a rock and able to groove in any time signature! On violin, Jerry Goodman, formerly of the Flock and able to match McLaughlin’s stringed virtuosity! And on keyboards, Jan Hammer, master of the moog synthesizer and able to bend the notes of his keyboard! Together they are the mightiest fusion group ever assembled: The Mahavishnu Orchestra!

Although some would pick their follow up album ``Birds of Fire`` as their finest moment in the studio, for my money they never topped this debut, a monstrous slab of 8 instrumental bits of precisely controlled insanity and stunning virtuosity. Here, the sound is clear yet raw, with McLaughlin’s huge guitar tone growling and screaming at ungodly volumes, the production just clear enough for the listener to make out the (many) individual notes in his speedy runs. To my ears, McLaughlin’s guitar would never sound so good again, the bit of rawness only making his fret board pyrotechnics all the more exciting. And like most groups first albums, there is an incredible energy level here, an urgency and joy to the playing that only comes when a group of musicians first becomes giddily aware of their own potential. So enough back-story already, lets get to the music!


So begins the first track on the album, “Meeting of Spirits”, its dissonant first chord exploding out of the speakers. It’s as jarring as when your teacher would slam his ruler over your desk for talking in class, and the message is the same for both: shut the fuck up and pay attention! After a few more harsh but incredible blasts, the dynamics suddenly shift and the band quiets down, with McLaughlin introducing the main theme of the track, one that owes more to the pseudo Indian raga-rock freak-outs that psychedelic rock had been in love with for the past five years. McLaughlin’s, Goodman’s and Hammer’s instruments all swirl around each other, gradually building to a hurricane of sound before dropping the intensity again and starting anew. It’s exhilarating and highly indicative of the gigantic shifts in dynamics that will follow, not just within a single song but also between tracks, like how the relatively mellow “Dawn” and acoustic “Lotus on Irish Springs” sandwich the rampaging “Noonward Race”.

Another song that starts at full blast, “Noonward Race” is perhaps the most heavy metal any music tenuously connected to “jazz” ever got. Deciding that Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” wasn’t nearly an effective enough killing machine, McLaughlin’s guitar work here comes off as the aural equivalent of every war movie ever made, the chika-chika-chika of the main “riff” and speedfreak proto-shred of his guitar solo’s all played with maximum volume, maximum intensity and, of course, maximum speed. Anyone who’s ever heard bootlegs of the original group knows that this was almost always a highlight live, with band jamming on this song the hardest and longest in a set filled with 15-minute marathons of carpel tunnel musicianship.*

“Vital Transformation” is another killer in this vein, beginning with an astounding Billy Cobham drum intro that manages to be pretty funky despite the odd (9/8) time signature and lack of space in his groove. After about 15 seconds, the group tears into a ferocious unison riff that is the most memorable on the album, one that even denim jacketed headbangers-in training could get into. After a sudden and brief venture back into raga-style tension building, the band settles into a groove, and as always, McLaughlin’s solo absolutely kills, the band perfectly building to a frenzied climax with him.

Unlike many similar groups of the time, there are even a few moments on ``The Inner Mounting Flame`` that seem to hint that these boys had a sense of humour. Take for example ``Dance of the Maya``, a song whose wah-wahed pseudo horror movie introduction suddenly and inexplicably gives way to a post-modern blues shuffle (albeit one in 7/8 time). Or how “You Know, You Know” puts the listener in a mellow mood with its slow groove and lilting melody, only to periodically interrupt it with sudden stops and seemingly random blasts of odd chords. They may have let pretense get the better of them later, but here, it’s obvious the group was having fun.

The last track, “Awakening” ends the album on a frenzied and chaotic note. The shortest song on the album at 3 and a half minutes, one could argue that the group invented “punk jazz” before Jaco Pastorious thought of the term (or at least they could if it weren’t for the incredible amount of musicianship displayed within said frenzy). Comprised of a tremendous number of extreme moods and feelings, “The Inner Mounting Flame” must have been a daunting listen back in 1971, so much so that some parents probably begged their kids to take it down a notch and play some Led Zeppelin on their stereos.

Unfortunately, the group would only manage to release one more studio album and a live album before tensions within the band would cause them to implode. McLaughlin would gather many other musicians under the Mahavishnu name, but none of them would match the chemistry, power and sheer cosmic rush the first band achieved. So the next time one of your friends makes fun of you for liking “fusion”, do them a favour and blast them “The Inner Mounting Flame” as loud as you can…they’ll thank you for it.

*For the best of these, try searching for a boot of the group’s performance in Cleveland in 1972. It features a version of “Noonward Race” that will leave you completely exhausted and maybe a little confused by the end…and I mean that in the best way possible.

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