Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Billy Cobham - Spectrum

Billy Cobham

Released 1973 on Atlantic
Reviewed by Brandon Tenold, 26/01/2009ce

In 1973, the cracks were starting to show in the Mahavishnu machine. A relentless tour schedule combined with the other member’s resentment of John McLaughlin’s dictator-like control over the group was causing tensions to rise in the band, as many of the other members felt they had no outlet for their own compositions. In the middle of all this, drummer Billy Cobham somehow found the time to record a solo album. The result, “Spectrum”, remains his finest and most consistent solo album to this day, a heavily rock and funk leaning fusion album that strips away some of the Orchestra’s more florid spiritual excesses in favour of a much more groove-centered (but still busy as hell) sound that hungry young DJ’s in search of sample’s would soon exploit.

For most of the tracks on the album, Cobham assembled a lean, mean electric band consisting of fellow Mahavishnu member Jan Hammer on keyboards, session bassist Leland Sklar and guitar hero coulda-been-a-contender Tommy Bolin, who was between stints replacing Joe Walsh in the James Gang and Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple. The album begins with some quiet studio chatter before starting “Quadrant 4”, a frenetic blues containing a double bass drum shuffle pattern more than a decade before Alex Van Halen decided to nick it for use in “Hot for Teacher”. After establishing the theme, the song consists primarily of solos traded between Hammer and Bolin. Bolin is easily the biggest revelation here, a promising but usually underutilized guitar prodigy who takes many opportunities to cut loose. Although he doesn’t step on the accelerator quite as heavily as the true fusion proto-shredders, he’s still more technically accomplished than most other rock guitarists of the era, combining the more blues-oriented hard rock style of guitarists like Page and Iommi with the ambitious note barrages of McLaughlin and Holdsworth. If Alex Van Halen had a copy of this record, I’m sure brother Eddie listened closely to Tommy Bolin’s playing.

Then comes “Searching for the Right Door”, the first of 4 solo pieces, the others being “Anxiety”, “To the Women in My Life” and “Snoopy’s Search”. The first two are drum solo showpieces for Cobham, both of which are short enough that they’re not boring and actually sound almost as if they were included as jokes. The latter two are keyboard pieces, “Women” being a pretty bit of piano tinkling and “Snoopy” some Atari-style videogame noodling that ends with what sounds like someone knocking on a door. Despite the extraneous nature of all these, they surprisingly don’t detract from album that much, mostly functioning as introductions for the longer tracks and actually having an effect similar to Geezer’s “Bassically” and the other “we-always-name-our-intro’s” tracks from Black Sabbath’s debut.

Up next is the title track, which features the more acoustic-based players Cobham used on this album: the always tasteful and distinctive Ron Carter on bass and Joe Farrell and Jimmy Owens on horns. The lone electric instrument is Hammer’s omnipresent keyboards, but aside from a brief solo, he mostly confines himself to background comping. Here, the horns establish a theme that is more “traditional” NYC jazz than the frantic “Quadrant 4”, but the track still retains a rock flavour thanks to Carter’s funky, muscular bass playing and the always-inventive Cobham, who makes good use of his expanded drum kit. Most of the soloing is taken up by Farrell and Owens, who are smooth but never genteel.

We’re back to the electric band for “Taurian Matador”. Although this was something of a concert favourite for Cobham, it’s actually one my least favourite tracks on the album despite some great playing from Sklar and Bolin. The biggest reason is probably the fact that the theme just isn’t as memorable and catchy as the others. Despite this, there’s still a lot to recommend it, such as Sklar’s fantastic bass playing, which is busy and propulsive yet always in support of the other musicians. Hammer and Bolin almost seem to be mimicking each other as they trade short solo’s, Bolin taking on an almost synth-like tone at times while Hammer bends the notes on his keyboard in the middle of a flashy run. At only 3 minutes, it’s one of the shorter songs on the album, so its lack of a truly memorable theme doesn’t become overbearing.

“Stratus”, the arguable centerpiece of the album, starts off with a strange hissing sound before the introduction of a creepy, spare, violin-like electronic soundscape, almost sounding as if they spliced the middle of a live performance of “Dazed and Confused” into the album. This eventually gives way to some fast rolls from Cobham and some burbling electronics that can’t decide what key they’re in. It’s Stone Age electronica for sure, but they were new sounds to many ears at the time for sure, and it has actually aged better than some of the more explicitly dance-based electronic music of the time and later. All of this is just an introduction to the real track anyway (although oddly enough, this intro is NOT given a separate name), and after a snare roll, Cobham and Sklar hit you with one of the greatest grooves in history. Sklar’s bass line by itself is throbbing, and hypnotic, and combined with Cobham’s drumbeat, it’s absolutely sublime. It’s the kind of groove you could loop into infinity and still find your head uncontrollably nodding up and down even as the sun burns out. It’s been sampled numerous times, most notably by Massive Attack on “Safe from Harm”, which used the bass and drums verbatim. However, the samplers usually miss the icing on the cake, which is Tommy Bolin’s extended guitar solo. Rather than trading back and forth with Bolin like on the preceding tracks, Hammer decides to be a supporting player for the first part and let’s Bolin take center stage. Starting slowly, Bolin simmers for a bit before raising the temperature and boiling over, his effects drenched guitar once again achieving a watery, keyboard-like tone. When Bolin finally relents and lets Hammer have his time, Hammer’s solo is much more reserved than usual, choosing to play far less notes but letting the important ones scream when necessary. Through it all, that fantastic bass line continues, Sklar and Cobham playing solid as a rock and only deciding to get busier during the track’s outro. It’s one of jazz fusion’s finest moments and a track people should definitely play for friends who scoff at the idea of music without singing.

“Le Lis” is another track featuring Carter, Farrell and Owens, and it features some congas in addition to Cobham’s drums, having a mellow atmosphere. One again, Carter’s bass playing is fantastic, eschewing the stereotypical “walking” style of bass playing most people associate with jazz in favour of a style that is free flowing yet still grounded and groove-based. Hammer gets more time to solo this here, and his Mega Man-style keyboards take away a bit from the track, this being one time where acoustic piano would have been a better choice. This also features the most reserved performance from Cobham on the record, lacking the big rolls and bombastic double bass drum flurries that are his trademark.

“Red Baron” opens with a Bootsy-in-the-JB’s worthy funk bass line and tight drumming from Cobham while the keyboards and guitar double the main theme. The guitar is a bit bluesier sounding here, with a less crunchy bit still stinging tone. Hammer’s keyboards are also earthier sounding than on the other tracks, and even when abusing the ring modulator, he’s still funkier and more in the pocket than usual. Meanwhile, the bass and drums are as locked in as ever, Cobham only breaking the groove to add some rolls and fills and to accent the unison passages. After a fake ending, the band continues the groove before the track slowly fades out, bringing the album to a low-key conclusion. An extra track, “All for One” is included on some CD reissues. It’s a fast, frantic song featuring ample rhythm changes from Cobham and more frenzied guitar work from Bolin, but overall it’s not that special and it can’t compare to something like “Stratus”.

Although Cobham wrote all the tracks and was the undisputed leader on this album, I’m always amazed at how much of the spotlight he gives to the other talented musicians he got to join him. The intro tracks aside, Cobham manages the feat of showing the listener just how great a drummer he is without it ever feeling like he’s showing off. In some ways, this album is actually more of a collaborative effort than Mahavishnu was, and part of me can’t help but wonder what would have resulted had Cobham, Hammer, Sklar and Bolin decided to stick together. But then again, rock history is full of “what if’s”, isn’t it? Soon after “Spectrum” was released, the original Mahavishnu Orchestra disbanded and Cobham began a long and varied solo career in earnest. Despite several good moments, none of his solo albums matched his debut’s potent mix of rock attitude, jazz virtuosity and sheer groove power that only a drummer could bring as bandleader, and it remains one of the best fusion albums ever, before commercial pandering choked the life out of a once promising genre.

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