Friday, December 23, 2016

Mahavishnu Orchestra - 1974 [2016] "Apocalypse"

Apocalypse is the Mahavishnu Orchestra's fourth album, released in 1974.
It is performed by the second line-up of the Mahavishnu Orchestra as well as the London Symphony Orchestra. It was produced by George Martin, who regards it as “one of the best records [he has] ever made”.
The back cover features a poem by Sri Chinmoy as well as a group photo of those who created the album.

The first recording of the second Mahavishnu Orchestra was a real stretch for John McLaughlin, an encounter with Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra. The union wasn't taken seriously at the time, and it ended up harming the reputation of Thomas -- a remarkably adventurous young conductor who defied the stuffy classical powers-that-be and thus probably delayed his eventual rise to the top -- more than McLaughlin. But those with ears, then and now, beheld a remarkable series of pieces that neatly juxtapose and occasionally combine the combustion of McLaughlin's group with rich, tasteful symphonic statements orchestrated for McLaughlin by Michael Gibbs. The new Mahavishnu-ites, electric violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and keyboardist/vocalist Gayle Moran, have their moments, but the real focus of this disc is the quality of the symphonic conceptions and how well McLaughlin blends his lyrical and fiery guitar into the mixture. The best stretch is the breathtakingly ethereal opening of "Hymn to Him"; the promise of fusing rock, jazz, and classical elements had never been executed so alluringly before -- and wouldn't you know, an old experienced hand at introducing classical textures into rock, the Beatles' George Martin, is the producer. Don't let old, outworn preconceptions on either side of the fence prevent you from checking out this beautiful record. 

Wow! This 1974 recording had a great pedigree. First, you had Beatles producer George Martin. Then Michael Tilson Thomas, the young and gifted classical conductor, waving his magic wand in front of the London Symphony Orchestra. Jazz violin superstar Jean Luc Ponty stepped up as part of a newly expanded Mahavishnu Orchestra, and the teenage bass phenom Ralphe Armstrong more than capably held down the bottom end. Gayle Moran, Chick Corea's girlfriend, handled the keyboards and vocals, and Narada Michael Walden played drums. Last, of course, the guitar master Mahavishnu John McLaughlin, leading an Orchestra that was augmented by an impressive string section of its own. Producer Martin has stated in interviews that he considers this album to be one of the greatest he's ever produced. And that's saying a lot considering the landmark albums he produced for the Fab Four.

McLaughlin's compositional skills stand out on Apocalypse. Jean Luc Ponty made his debut with the Mahavishnu Orchestra on this album, and added energy to McLaughlin's inspired tunes. In a precious moment on "Hymn to Him," McLaughlin and Ponty achieve hyper stellar overdrive.

The true sleeper on this album is the opening "Power of Love." McLaughlin wields his acoustic guitar to front the LSO on this piece, a deliberate and uplifting tune. The remainder of the album features a highly charged McLaughlin. His electric playing is reminiscent of a finely tuned car engine: it purrs as smooth as a kitten, but can accelerate or stop abruptly when necessary. Ponty, McLaughlin's original choice for the first Mahavishnu Orchestra, really excels on Apocalypse. Years later he would say he probably left this band too soon. One only has to hear his musical interaction with McLaughlin to quickly agree.

The album does have one low moment, the misinformed "Smile of the Beyond". Despite some great playing on this tune, you have to suffer through a lengthy build-up which includes a vocal section. Moran's vocals are very nice, but because they are part of an overlong introduction, they are lost a bit. If McLaughlin had shortened the tune by three minutes, it would be a classic!

The London Symphony Orchestra deserves recognition as well. Yes, I know these guys would play just about anything for a paycheck. There was even some complaining about a few arrogant string players. But they did take advantage of these compositions and the orchestral arrangements, in which McLaughlin was greatly aided by Michael Gibbs. Many times on recordings like this—by Emerson, Lake and Palmer for example—the orchestra seems to be there for the effect only. In this case, the LSO had some really interesting things to say.

To perform this music live with a symphony orchestra was a nightmare. McLaughlin occasionally speaks upon the impossible technical requirements of the day, and in particular an unpleasant but eventually rewarding last minute experience with America's Buffalo Symphony Orchestra.

Witnessing the break-up of a band is never a pleasant experience to bear for a fan. It's almost impossible for us to not take the situation personally, especially if we develop an intimate connection to the music. And of course, there is that overwhelming sense of skepticism that arises in us when we hear that our group will continue to compose music, even after losing key members. Because no matter what happens afterwards, we know that the music will never be the same. Of course, in the case of The Mahavishnu Orchestra, John McLaughlin composed all of the music and the other members contributed under his direction. John McLaughlin may have been the soul of The Mahavishnu Orchestra, but Birds Of Fire and The Inner Mounting Flame wouldn't have been nearly as captivating if it lacked the eruptive intensity that Billy Cobham brought to the music with his bombastic drumming. And John McLaughlin's guitar solos would have never been as enrapturing without the intuitive synergy that he and violinist Jerry Goodman would reach when they complimented each other's vibes.

And now here we are, in midst of a new era, and we couldn't be anymore dubious. The fate of The Mahavishnu Orchestra now lies in the hands of George Martin. Certainly an accomplished composer and producer, who is acclaimed for helping The Beatles expand their sound, but is he a right fit for the dynamic style of Jazz music that The Mahavishnu Orchestra is famous for? No, but then again, those days are long gone. Apocalypse introduces a brand new sound, and for better or worse, all we can do, as fans, is accept it. The fifth Beatle makes his presence instantly perceptual in every single composition as the music is embellished with the evident influences of Classical music. "Vision Is A Naked Sword" gives us our first impression of the new Mahavishnu Orchestra, and for the most part, it isn't so unfamiliar. The bowed string and wind instruments work thematically with the percussive sections to create a powerful overture to the piece, and from there we embark into a long musical voyage were we encounter the familiar dextrous instrumental jams that we've come to revere. John McLaughlin's guitar techniques haven't changed in the slightest bit, still as eruptive and innovative as always. Narada Michael Walden, who has replaced Billy Cobham, even manages to adequately imitate the vigorous percussive dynamics of the pervious albums. But now there are these classical ornaments that flourish in the background of every song, delivering grandiose clashes that bombard us with potency to more harmonious displays of emotive atmospheres.

"Smile Of The Beyond" reveals a new feature that has never been heard in the previous efforts, singing. Gayle Moran's voice is coalesced with a violin and cello section to induce a sense of musical elegance and beauty, and in the beginning when it's just her and the bowed string instruments, it is enticing and even angelic. But when it descends into a rambunctious jam in the midsection, it loses all of its grace and the vocal deliveries even begin to feel a bit cliché as they try to retain that sense of eloquence in all of the chaos. "Hymn To Him" is the piece that saves Apocalypse, as it is the culmination of everything John McLaughlin and George Martin were striving for in this endeavor. It opens with such a marvelous and gentle melody. The music fluctuates with such a soothing texture before escalating into some of the most intense instrumental displays that The Mahavishnu Orchestra has ever performed. The Classical aesthetics even coalesce exquisitely with the Jazz Fusion style, making for a mesmerizing listening that inveigles enthusiasm with ease.

As Apocalypse reaches its climax, it's difficult to express an opinion of everything we have just experienced. In all of its musical innovations, Apocalypse is closer to Progressive rock than Jazz Fusion. And even though the album embraces a more diverse variety of harmonies, structures, and sound, it lacks the inviting mysticism of the previous two efforts. The content of the album strives so desperately to galvanize enthrallment with its glorious epical orchestrations, but instead it often comes off as pretentious and overwhelming rather than impressive. Contrary to what most fans will claim, this fault doesn't lie in George Martin's insistance on Classical arrangements, but in the fact that John McLaughlin's style of playing does not thrive in this kind of setting. He forcefully tries to recreate the abrasive sound of the previous albums within this new symphonic concept, and the two elements tend to compliment each other in a very hit-or-miss fashion. This is without a doubt The Mahavishnu Orchestra's most ambitious effort, but it's also a more laborious listening experience compared to the other two albums because there is so much to perceive and grasp, which inevitably makes it less accessible. But there are moments of genius in this album, and it's enlightening to see John McLaughlin branch out of his comfort zones and experiment with a new approach. Apocalypse is certainly an entertaining album, but it requires an honest commitment to really understand the concepts of the music at hand.

Tracks Listing

1. Power Of Love (4:13)
2. Vision Is A Naked Sword (14:18)
3. Smile Of The Beyond (8:00)
4. Wings Of Karma (6:06)
5. Hymn To Him (19:19)

Total Time: 51:56

Line-up / Musicians

- John McLaughlin / guitars, vocal composer
- Gayle Moran / keyboards, vocals
- Jean-Luc Ponty / violins (electric & baritone electric)
- Ralphe Armstrong / bass, double bass, vocals
- Michael Walden / drums, percussion, vocals, clavinet (?)

With:
- London Symphony Orchestra
- Hugh Beau / orchestra leader
- Michael Tilson Thomas / piano (2), orchestra conductor
- Michael Gibbs / orchestration
- Marsha Westbrook / viola
- Carol Shive / violin, vocals
- Philip Hirschi / cello, vocals

4 comments:

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  2. Nice! Thanks for this

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  3. Great blog - many thanks for this gem.
    Peace in 2017.

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