[Review] The Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin: The Inner Mounting Flame (1971)

The album that confirmed McLaughlin was one of the hottest guitarists on the planet.

Kronomyth 1.0: McLaughlin’s Maha moment.

There could be little doubt after the release of The Inner Mounting Flame that John McLaughlin was one of the world’s greatest living guitarists. At the time, this was the pinnacle of jazz-rock fusion although, as others have pointed out, “jazz-rock fusion” fails the album as a descriptor. The jazz references are relatively few; like Frank Zappa (one of the few comparisons that could be made in 1971), McLaughlin was following the beat of his own drum.

Over the years, we would learn to expect the unexpected from John McLaughlin: nuclear fusion pyrotechnics followed by songs of sublime calm, an example of which is offered here on the opening two tracks: Meeting of the Spirits and Dawn. Robert Fripp of King Crimson is another reference point, as that band walked equally well between the dark and light. In fact, The Mahavishnu Orchestra fits more comfortably into the progressive rock category than fusion because of its willingness to explore sounds more often associated with rock than jazz (e.g., feedback, distortion).

Listening to McLaughlin’s earlier solo albums or The Tony Williams Lifetime won’t really prepare you for The Mahavishnu Orchestra. The lineup consisted of a couple of Berklee grads (Jan Hammer, Rick Laird) and Billy Cobham and Jerry Goodman, who had both appeared on McLaughlin’s recent solo album, My Goal’s Beyond. Hammer proved to be a find, recalling Josef Zawinul with his ability to move seamlessly between melody and anarchy. Goodman served as a second guitarist of sorts, setting the stage for the future work of Jean-Luc Ponty. Cobham was a natural force on the drums, not yielding an inch to Tony Williams. Although The Inner Mounting Flame is clearly a group effort, it’s McLaughlin’s vision from beginning to end.

The first side of music is simply astounding. Within the first thirty seconds of “Meeting of the Spirits,” I was convinced this was the greatest fusion album ever recorded. (Remember, Al Di Meola-era Return To Forever was still a few years off.) Split between quiet songs (Dawn, A Lotus on Irish Streams) and explosive rock-jazz numbers (Spirits, The Noonward Race), it’s a breathtaking performance. “The Noonward Race” also introduces Hammer’s distorted electric piano which, together with McLaughlin’s mind-blowing soloing, pushes the music into the punk-jazz territory that Weather Report would later inhabit upon the arrival of Jaco Pastorius.

The second side repeats the formula, but with fewer soft passages. Vital Transformation feels like Soft Machine with their amps on eleven. Dance of Maya prowls like a tiger (shades of Crimson to come) between revealing a heretofore hidden sense of humor in its blues-rock parody. You Know You Know is more reflective, while McLaughlin keeps the listener on their toes by punctuating the music with electric exclamation points. Awakening crams the best parts of Flame into three-and-a-half-minutes of awesomeness.

As I said, this album propelled McLaughlin to the top of the guitar gods chart, at least for the moment. Frank Zappa, Robert Fripp, Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix were all amazing guitarists, Allan Holdsworth and Al Di Meola were right around the corner, but Mahavishnu John McLaughlin raised the bar on this record. Even today, fifty years on, there are very few records that can hold a candle to The Inner Mounting Flame.

Original elpee version

A1. Meeting of the Spirits (6:50)
A2. Dawn (5:15)
A3. The Noonward Race (6:27)
A4. A Lotus on Irish Streams (5:41)
B1. Vital Transformation (6:14)
B2. The Dance of Maya (7:15)
B3. You Know You Know (5:06)
B4. Awakening (3:30)

All compositions by Mahavishnu John McLaughlin.

Original 8-track listing
A1. A Lotus on Irish Streams
A2. Awakening
A3. The Dance of Maya (part 1)
B1. The Dance of Maya (conclusion)
B2. Meeting of the Spirits
C1. Dawn
C2. Vital Transformation
D1. The Noonward Race
D2. You Know You Know

The Players

Billy Cobham (drums), Jerry Goodman (violin), Jan Hammer (piano), Rick Laird (bass), John McLaughin (guitar). Produced by John McLaughlin; engineered by Don Puluse.

The Pictures

Album design by Ron Coro. Photography by Anthony Hixon.

The Plastic

Released on elpee and 8-track on August 14, 1971 in the US (Columbia, KC/CA 31067) and Japan (CBS/Sony, SOPL-10) and in 1972 in the UK and the Netherlands (CBS, S 64717); reached #89 on the US charts and #11 on the US Jazz charts.

  1. Re-issued on elpee in the US (Columbia, PC 31067).
  2. Re-issued on compact disc in the US (Columbia, 31067-2).
  3. Re-issued on compact disc on February 1, 1997 in Japan (CBS/Sony, SRCS 9176).
  4. Re-released on 20-bit remastered compact disc in 1998 in the US (Columbia Jazz, CK 65523).
  5. Re-released on Ultradisc II remastered compact disc in 1999 in the US (Mobile Fidelity, UDCD 744).
  6. Re-released on 180g vinyl elpee in the US (Columbia/Speakers Corner, PC/KC 31067).
  7. Re-packaged with Birds of Fire, Between Nothingness and Eternity, Apocalypse and Visions of the Emerald Beyond on 5CD box set in 2007 in the US (Columbia
  8. Re-issued on compact disc on November 8, 2017 in Japan (CBS/Sony, SICJ-243).

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