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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Mahavishnu Orchestra

Visions of the Emerald Beyond

Review by Gary Hill

Well, I tend to figure that fusion that leans heavily towards the rock end of the spectrum qualifies as progressive rock. In that case, there's no question where Mahavishnu Orchestra belongs. Everyone knows about legendary Mahavishnu guitarist John McLaughlin's fret-board prowess, but by the time this incarnation of the band came around Jean-Luc Ponty had joined bringing his exceptional skills on the violin into the fold .The truth is, these guys were an incredibly talented bunch of musicians (beyond the two most recognizable names, even) and they produced some of the most innovative and challenging music of the period. As opposed to a lot of the output of acts like this not all of Mahavishnu Orchestra's songs were strictly instrumental. Almost half the tracks here have at least some vocals, and that adds to the variety of music that the band created. This album is a real killer - although some would say that it doesn't compare to some of their earlier works. It's a must have for prog fans who are looking to explore the fusion side. For those who haven't heard Ponty and McLaughlin, this one would be a great way to get an introduction to the works of both in one shot. They do manage to steal a lot of the show here, and as strong as these two are on their instruments - who cares?

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2006 Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Eternity's Breath Part 1
This rises gradually from silence with an organ-dominated sound. Bass and percussion begin to play across and the cut starts to take on a jazz meets Eastern tones texture. A burst of instrumental exploration gives way to a short percussive solo. Then a rather metallic burst of sound leads to a Zappa-like riff. As the vocals enter this becomes a jazz oriented prog rock powerhouse. The occasional side journeys into more Eastern tones are quite cool. They bring this to a logical conclusion, then a flourish of sound serves as the actual end.
Eternity's Breath Part 2
This fills the vacuum left by the previous one. It is a rather straightforward stomper that calls to mind Blood Sweat and Tears a bit. The guitar soloing on here, though, simply shreds. It should be noted that the BS & T link is in reference to the general musical form, and not the vocals arrangement or any such thing. This one is rather simple in terms of song construction, but gains all of its power from the soloing of Jean-Luc Ponty and John McLaughlin. They do twist it around later into a triumphant sounding segment that adds to the power and majesty of the overall track. Then another new segment emerges out of there and eventually pulls the vocals back in. Even then Ponty is soloing all over this thing. After it's done you can just say "wow!"
Lila's Dance
A pretty keyboard line starts this instrumental in a pretty, playful tone that's a definite contrast to the dramatic majesty of the last number. This runs through for a time as the introduction, then a new fusion sort of groove takes the track in slowly rising forms. Ponty cuts loose with a solo over the top of this and it seems as if the song is about to explode. However, instead of cutting loose into a full out fiery jam it moves back to the more restrained with the soloing laying lines of potent melody over the top of this backdrop. Ponty may be the first to solo on this cut, but he is not the only one as the duties are shared throughout this segment. Then it switches gear into a rather Kansas-sounding riff that serves as a transitionary segment. This gives over to a bass dominated segment. Then they burst back out into a guitar scream fest that is quite effective. The Kansas type riff takes it again later and they move it back out to a more melodic ballad type structure to carry forward. Some incredibly dramatic instrumental sounds are woven over the top of this, but eventually the piano returns to bookend this one out. Fans of stunning instrumental work really should not miss this one. It's a powerhouse, and everyone gets a chance to shine here as they move through all sorts of varying themes.
Can't Stand Your Funk
Well, that may be, but I sure like Mahavishnu's style of funk, and this is it. This groove starts off a bit tentatively, but as it kicks into gear full fledged it's an incredibly tasty slice of powerhouse funky tones and progressions. This instrumental is just a little over two minutes in length, but it's all quality. There's no fat on this funk machine.
Pastoral
As one might expect, the gentle sounds of nature lead this one off. They remain alone for the first two or so seconds, then an acoustic guitar motif joins. Ponty begins to weave lines of violin over the top of this backdrop and slowly they rearrange and augment this basic musical structure, enhancing it with each passing run. This is essentially a mellow balladic number, but don't let that fool you - it's anything but boring. It is quite pretty, but there is also plenty happening in this instrumental piece to keep your attention glued. They even include a drop back to classical instrumentation that is accompanied by a return of the natural soundscape. Violin pretty much rules this number, but the sum here is more than just that one instrument. Eventually only the nature sounds remain to end it.
Faith
A pretty guitar line starts this, but very quickly they begin to work this over and over, creating waves of drama and power that at times become dissonant. This is an incredibly powerful instrumental that packs a lot of exploration into just two minutes. It drops back about half way through to an electric guitar texture and then a rock concert style solo takes it. Drums join in and the band launch into a frantic, but very short burst of excitement that ends in laughter.
Cosmic Strut
This comes in with something that reminds me just a little of Yes. This segment is very short lived (only a couple measures), though. They launch out into a funky sort of fusion groove from there that again showcases some stellar musicianship all around. This thing really captivates and excites as it carries through its variations. It's a pretty pure fusion-oriented outing. McLaughlin and Ponty steal much of the show, but you really can't take away from the rest of the performers, everyone contributes here.
If I Could See
A total change of pace an operatic voice starts this and the band come in as accompaniment, gradually building up to an equal par. This then begins to resemble a very odd early King Crimson sort of approach. This is all out art in motion - with less of an emphasis on musicality than making a point. As it works through the frantic jamming, though, eventually it begins to take on more definite musical themes and it fires out into a super frantic funky jazz jam that's simply awesome. That jam's origin lie in the space that ties this song and the next one together, so there will be more thorough coverage of it there.
Be Happy
The guys are purely on fire here with the bass in particular shining through. You can't take anything away from McLaughlin's guitar pyrotechnics; it's just that it's not as frequent that you get to hear the bass power a track like this. Ralphe Armstrong plays like a man possessed. This instrumental is another showcase piece and one of the best you're likely to hear anywhere.
Earth Ship
In startling contrast to the previous piece, this one starts with very sedate keyboards that build very gradually. After a time the track begins to play around within a jazzy ballad structure that serves as the backdrop for the vocals. This one is more about atmosphere and emotion than furious soloing. In that way it serves as a respite from the fury that we just experienced. Consider this the chance to catch your breath.
Pegasus
Speaking of atmosphere, this is basically a fairly brief section of spacey atmospheric jamming. It never really rises above the level of sound effects in terms of picking up a clear melody, but again it does a nice job of breaking up the disc.
Opus 1
This is a very brief (fifteen seconds) neo-classical introduction. There's not much here to really comment upon. It serves more as a set up for the disc's closer and seques straight into it.
On The Way Home To Earth
Spacey sounds rise up from the lead-in number. Then a noisy keyboard texture takes over a bit like some sort of crazy radio signal from a robot. This works its way into a more full-fledged fusion type groove as it carries on. It's still a bit weird and noise oriented, though. This gets pretty intense, but just doesn't quite work to me until it has a false ending couple minutes in. Then a plodding sort of bass chord takes it for a time, serving as the transition into the next movement. They scream out from there into more frantic fusion jamming, this time more on message in terms of the sounds. They still manage to turn it a little dissonant at times, but this is a rather effective piece nonetheless. They pull it towards a more melodic resolution to eventually end, and that's a good thing. Without that effort I'm not sure that this would make a great closer. Even so the ending is kind of abrupt, awkward surprise.


 
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