REvaluating MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA – Apocalypse (1974, CBS)

In my review of NO AGE’s 2008 effort, Noun, I questioned what how the album benefitted me. I concluded that it wouldn’t much, really. It’s a much more difficult question to answer with this Mahavishnu Orchestra album.

Perhaps because this album is a very grand experiment – a prog jazz rock fusion band playing with the London Symphony Orchestra at the height of prog jazz fusion silliness of the mid-1970s. I shouldn’t have to introduce the Mahavishnu Orchestra really – I’m sure the Wikipedia page is long enough and does an exemplary job – perhaps to say little more than it’s fronted by John McLaughlin, a pioneer of jazz rock. Also on the Mahavishnu books for this album is the exemplary jazz violinist, Jean-Luc Ponty.

Enough; enough of that guff.

So, what’s the sound? A decent play – well, it’s prog rock jazz with an orchestra intermingling here and there, really. The hard hitting drummer, Michael Warden drives the show, and is an excellent, exciting anchor to have – and things tend to bubble and boil around him. You have moments of orchestration being the overwhelming theme, and then moments of fusion jazz wig outs, with McLaughlin’s or Ponty’s piecing tone cutting through everything to lead. And then, there are surprising melds when the orchestra backs one of these rather fine solos. Or in the case of a midsection of the last number, where the orchestra provides the change-over riff for the dualling of Ponty and McLaughlin.

McLaughlin and Ponty have a similar style, to my years, very complimentary – fret boards a-fire, essentially.

But, the thing about jazz fusion is that it’s emphasis is on the smooth, and it’s something that I always find grating. Ralphe Armstrong’s (fretless? Urgh!) bass here is like butter, so that even atonal moments don’t sound that jarring. This is a problem. And, to go with that, the orchestration is a tad on the conservative side, opting for classical, almost filmatic or romantic sounds rather than anything approaching ‘modern’ composition. And in that, it’s quite bland – the orchestra stay’s where it is most comfortable; the jazz is really the experiment here.

But, Walden’s drumming is bloody marvellous, a tour-de-force.

This jazz, ultimately, is about musicianship and – golly – musicianship is on display. It’s hard to fault anybody’s performance. And maybe it’s the lack of dynamic – I am listening to a 1990 CD version of this 1974 – and I find it quite easy to tune out the album. Also, perhaps is the slow movements of the album, that it’s self indulgence is for all to see. But, that’s obvious from the fucking album from this fucking band at this fucking point in jazz and prog history – this is a prog jazz fusion band backed by the sodding London Symphony Orchestra. When was that not going to be self-indulgent?

Rating: It’s very impressive, and quite hard to decide. I have issues with it, but it also has some grand moments. The more I listen to it, however, the more I find myself accepting its place in the collection. It can go beside the two ELP albums. As long as this sort of stuff never overwhelms the dirtier music, I think I can survive.

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