The last studio album from The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s original lineup, Birds of Fire, consolidates and refines the approach illustrated on the band’s debut The Inner Mounting Flame. Such moves can neuter a band’s impact if the needle swings too far towards tidiness or pretension. It is not the case with Birds of Fire. This ten song effort ranks among the iconic fusion releases from the genre’s heyday and stands forty plus years later as one of the period’s truly substantive musical achievements. Releases like this proved the right elements from guitar-dominated rock music capable of mixing with genuine improvisation and challenging musical approaches with one informing the other. This is music written, recorded, and performed by adults for adults.
The title song opens with Billy Cobham’s percussion crashes and guitarist John McLaughlin enters soon after. It is one of The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s notable attributes to work so effectively as a cohesive musical unit rather than five master musicians pulling against one another for their share of the spotlight. Few tracks illustrate it better than “Birds of Fire”. McLaughlin’s guitar work is often highly structured, but he’s just as adept careening off into exploratory passages where incendiary, freewheeling tendencies take over. Cobham, violinist Jerry Goodman, and keyboardist Jan Hammer key their contributions off McLaughlin, but the flair with which they do so imbues the performance with added layers. “Miles Beyond (Miles Davis” is a tribute to McLaughlin’s friend and one time bandleader. The guitarist and Hammer make for an exceptional pairing, in general, but this track finds one musician strengthening through contrast the contributions of the other.
McLaughlin and Goodman trade off some flamethrower-like volleys on “Celestial Terrestrial Commuters” with Hammer contributing some fire-breathing keyboard lines of his own. It’s a relatively brief cut and followed by an even shorter electronic freak out titled “Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love”. The piece serves no purpose clocking at less than thirty seconds long. “Thousand Island Park” shows off the band’s diversity with an exquisitely lyrical turn built around piano and acoustic guitar. It’s a sparkling McLaughlin showcase with memorable melodic value. The unusual amount of repetition defining the song “Hope” makes it stand out from more adventurous surrounding pieces, but dynamic playing and a manageable length keeps the performance on point. “One Mind” burns at a white-hot simmer with some key crescendos along the way before shifting gears near its mid-way point into a stripped-down variation on the initial theme. This overall performance rates among Billy Cobham’s brightest moments on the album, but his work in tandem with bassist Rick Laird is equally impressive. McLaughlin, Hammer, and Goodman duel again on this track with even more explosive results than the earlier “Celestial Terrestrial Commuters”. They delve into muted, subtler territory again for the song “Sanctuary” and there’s an ominous tone struck by its often unpredictable swells and methodically paced development.
The relaxed, glittering beauty of “Open Country Joy” ends just short of the four minute mark. Jerry Goodman makes his presence especially felt on this performance thanks to his elegant grace with the violin skirting between neo-classical lyricism and surprising touches not far removed from you find on classic country albums. The complementary touches from McLaughlin and Hammer are ideal. “Resolution” closes Birds of Fire with a mounting, appropriately climatic number whose success is largely dependent on Laird and Cobham’s sure hands. Closing on this note isn’t the ending this legendary lineup imagined for themselves and, in hindsight, the song title is bittersweet. There is no sense of an exhausted band on Birds of Fire. Greater heights awaited this collection of musicians, but it wasn’t to be.