Mahavishnu Orchestra – Birds of Fire – What to Listen For

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your copy of Birds of Fire.

Birds of Fire as a recording is not about depth or soundstage or ambience. It’s about IMMEDIACY, plain and simple. All the lead instruments positively jump out of the speakers — if you are lucky enough to be playing the right pressing. This is precisely what we want our best Hot Stampers to do. The better they do it, the higher their grade.

The main problem with this record is a lack of midrange presence. If the keyboards, drums and guitars are not right in front of you,, your copy does not have all the presence it should. On the best copies the musicians are right in the room with you. We know this for a fact because we heard the copies that could present them that way, and we heard it more than once.

Which of course gets to the reason shootouts are the only real way to learn about records. The best copies will show you qualities in the sound you had no way of knowing were possible. Without the freakishly good pressings you run into by chance in a shootout you have no way to know how high is up. On this record up is very high indeed.

A True Demo Disc

Birds of Fire is one of the top two or three Jazz/Rock Fusion Albums of All Time. In my experience, few recordings within this genre can begin to compete with the Dynamics and Energy of the best pressings of the album — if you have the Big Dynamic system for it.

This link will take you to more titles in the None Rocks Harder series.

Ken Scott, Recording Genius

The amazing engineer Ken Scott (Ziggy Stardust, Magical Mystery Tour, Honky Chateau) is the man responsible for the sound here, but the explosive dynamics are not just for show. They’re here for a reason. This music requires that level of sonic realism; better yet, demands it. In truth, the sound is not only up to the challenge of expressing the life of the music on this album, it positively enhances it.

Drums!

Those monster Billy Cobham drum rolls that run across the soundstage from wall to wall may be a recording studio trick, but they’re there to draw your attention to his amazing powers, and it works! The drums are everywhere on this album, constantly jumping out of the soundfield and taking the energy of the music into the stratosphere where it belongs.

We know of few recordings where the drums are placed so prominently in the mix, almost as if the rest of the band is there to support the drummer. (On Cobham’s solo albums that is indeed the case.) But that’s precisely what makes this record such a joy to listen to. The drummer is as good as out of his mind on most of these songs — the rest of the band has to step up their game just to be able to keep up with the guy.

None More Hard Rocking

It’s hard to think of another record that rocks as hard, and it’s not even a real rock record! We find ourselves playing albums like Houses of the Holy and Zep II and Dark Side of the Moon for hour upon hour, with dozens of copies to get through, and we do it on a regular basis. If anybody knows Big Rock Sound, it’s us. But can we really say that those albums rock any harder than this one? Birds of Fire is to Jazz what Zep II is to Rock — the ultimate statement by a band at the absolute top of their game.

We tried doing a shootout for this album in 2008 and failed miserably. At that time, not that long ago when you think about it, there was no way we could get this music to play so loud, so cleanly, and with such correct tonality, from the deepest bass to the highest highs, complete with the wild swings in dynamics that the recording captures so well.

The Audio Revolution Is Alive and Well and making progress all the time.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Birds of Fire 
Miles Beyond 
Celestial Terrestrial Commuters 
Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love 
Thousand Island Park 
Hope

Side Two

One Word 
Sanctuary 
Open Country Joy
Resolution

AMG 5 Star Review

A remarkable example of precisely choreographed, high-speed solo trading — with John McLaughlin, Jerry Goodman, and Jan Hammer all of one mind, supported by Billy Cobham’s machine-gun drumming and Rick Laird’s dancing bass — can be heard on the aptly named “One Word,” and the title track is a defining moment of the group’s nearly atonal fury…

This album actually became a major crossover hit, rising to number 15 on the pop album charts, and it remains the key item in the first Mahavishnu Orchestra’s slim discography.