Graded on a Curve: Mahavishnu Orchestra, Visions of the Emerald Beyond

Celebrating John McLaughlin on his 80th birthday.Ed.

I don’t know what you do when you want to set your ears free to grokk nakedly in the Universal Aether, but I know what I do–turn on the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It’s like Miles Davis, circa Bitches Brew, minus all the annoying edge. Yes, the MO has filtered out all that nasty street that Miles insisted upon blurting all over his newfangled fusion, and left us with nothing but pure unsexed cosmos to explore.

Theirs was a carefully controlled experiment in defunkification, and it succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest (er, make that tamest) expectations. While John McLaughlin’s guitar occasionally wanders into pure freakout territory, it’s always a freakout of the mind, rather than the balls. The Mahavishnu Orchestra threw the balls in the trash, then took up yoga. And hired a Frenchman to play violin. And an opera singer. It’s a wonder, really, that more people didn’t get hurt.

Of course, plenty of people like the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s interstellar hoo-hah, because the truth is, you never know what anybody’s going to like. Where some people hear pleasing chakra-massaging neo-jazz with an edge, I hear too little rock and too much spacy New Age hoodoo. The guy can play guitar like a God, as he proved on Miles Davis’ landmarks Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson, just as Jan Luc Ponty, the French violinist I mentioned above, can play like blazes, as he demonstrated on Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats. But on Visions of the Emerald Beyond, whose title speaks volumes, they don’t want to rock your balls off—they want to transport you to a higher spiritual plane, or Indra’s Net, or wherever it is Gary Wright and the Buddha hang out, playing dueling keytars.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra of Visions of the Emerald Beyond is a completely different outfit from the one that recorded three LPs for Columbia from 1971-73. The original band included the likes of Billy Cobham and Jan Hammer, and there are plenty of fans who sneer at the Orchestra Mark II, which in addition to Ponty included bassist Ralphe Armstrong, Gayle Moran on keyboards and vocals, and Narada Michael Walden on drums.

There are some truly stultifying tunes on this LP; “Pastoral” opens with bird chirp—always a good sign to run—and turns into Renaissance Faire fair. The blessedly brief “If I Could See” mates the ethereal vocals of Moran with the drumming of Walden, and simply annoys. “Pegasus” is atmospheric interstellar underdrive, more classical in feel than jazz, and also thankfully short. “Earth Ship” features more wimpy vocals, a wimpy flute, and takes its good old time going nowhere. “Opus 1” is 25 seconds of neo-classical boredom.

The rest of the LP wanders into rock/funk territory, and while not all of its tunes are winners, at least they won’t bore you into a permanent coma. “Can’t Stand Your Funk” is nice but short on the nasty; the horn arrangement is far too polite, and McLaughlin never lets loose on the guitar. It reminds me of one of the politer tunes of Zappa’s Hot Rats. The same goes for “Cosmic Strut,” which is too clean, too polished; it takes all the smut out of the strut, and not even Ponty’s excellent solo can save it. “Faith” boasts a lovely melody, great drumming, and some soaring (if non-rock) guitar, and takes a (too) brief turn towards the wild at the end.

On “Be Happy” the Orchestra finally kicks out the jams, with Ponty and the McLaughlin riding atop some raucous drums, and tossing off sparks. Ponty is a prodigy, and his second solo is a thing of beauty, as is the backing he gets from McLaughlin. The tune is unfortunately short; one wishes the band had gotten the urge to jam. Alas. They also rock balls on “On the Way Home to Earth,” with McLaughlin opening things with some big chords and then some titanic feedback, while Walden rides roughshod in the background. I’m not a big fan of McLaughlin’s guitar tone; I wish it were meatier, bigger, and bouncier. But on the song’s second half he wails and wails, while Walden, an excellent drummer, continues to bash things around and Moran plays some unfortunately ethereal keyboard that so far as I’m concerned nearly ruins the entire undertaking.

“Lila’s Dance” opens with some Charlie Brown piano, and you think you’re in for something anodyne. And the melody is, too pretty that is. But Ponty plays some soaring feedback over it, and McLaughlin stops the proceedings abruptly to play some hard rock that lets you know this is the same guy who gave us 1973’s blazing “Birds on Fire.” The ensemble playing is still too elegant, unfortunately, and makes me want to ask do fries come with this shake? The answer is no. They do not. And the shake is lo-cal. Too bad.

“Eternity’s Breath, Pt. 1” opens with some distant wailing guitar, very Middle Eastern, and some keyboard drone, and then McLaughlin lays into the melody, and hope arises until the vocalists come in with Ponty, whose playing is not nearly wild enough. It’s followed by “Eternity’s Breath, Pt. 2,” which opens on a smooth jazz note (very Steely Dan!) and is destroyed by those damned vocalists. McLaughlin’s playing some cool guitar back there, and it finally moves to the forefront, burning down the house. Then Ponty follows with some equally wild violin, and this is as wild as the album gets; unfortunately it turns back into a tasteful example of well-mannered fusion, and even Ponty’s frantic scratching can’t rescue the song from the ensemble playing and those vocalists, who have a lot to answer for with their “Love supreme,” which they filched wholesale from John Coltrane, who knew that good music is a fearless quest for the infinite, and not a petting zoo for players who know how to go wild, but choose to play nice.

And that’s my problem with Visions of the Emerald Beyond; with a very few exceptions, it plays nice. Miles never played it nice, which is why the Mahavishnu Orchestra never put out its own Jack Johnson or Bitches Brew. You can’t get there from here, or from there to here, and I don’t know if you can blame McLaughlin’s spiritual path or not, but his fusion was simply lacking in the nasty department. His funk is too smooth, his songs too lacking in grit and ferocity. He had a lion in him, but he kept it caged, at least on Visions of the Emerald Beyond. And soon he would move to the acoustic guitar, tossing the key to the lion’s cage into the trash. More’s the pity. He coulda been a guitar god, coulda shoulda. And it’s a damned shame.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C-

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