Gong. Hi, welcome to Birds of Fire (1973, Columbia), brought out to the world two years after one of rock and jazz history’s supreme debuts, and possibly the greatest debut in the entire bridge of jazz fusion. The lineup of the band remains identical, and this time the length of the pieces have become much more varied, stretching from 20 seconds to 10 minutes and a bunch of other kinds of times found between. Know what this provides an excellent breeding ground for? I know you didn’t say anything, but the answer is inconsistency. Bad news is this seems to be a mildly present symptom. The good news is that these musicians are probably hooked up on more crack than a drunkard’s windshield. The mix between Shankar, Coltrane, and Hendrix is an inevitably deadly one, after all.
The title track has already taken off the runway just around 30 seconds after starting, and immediately something is noticeable: the discipline and restraint in the face of ridiculous musicianship present within their debut is much less apparent here, which may as well be an evolution portrayed via album title. There’s generally a size difference between an inner mounting flame and a posse of phoenixes. The rhythm has ultimately contained itself to allow Goodman’s violin and McLaughlin’s guitar to shine alongside one another, cultivating their own pairs of wings built entirely off of the smoke created from their instruments. The cymbals hiss like machinery and the drums are in constant flux, not in a mood right now to run rampant but still looking to keep their fellow operatives on their tippy toes.
The start of Miles Beyond is just asking to be sampled, I just have to quickly say. The bass and keyboard are pretty much the ripest funk elements you can buy for the sake of pureeing into jazz fusion. The fresh taste of that whole pocket is dampened through the violin behaving more out of line than the rest of the lineup in this piece. When the violin does choose to conform to the rhythmic clauses, that’s when you need sunglasses just hearing this thing. This motherfucker could invent a new walk that reeks its own magnetism. Even if it doesn’t go anywhere around the end, that whole going was a good bit of fun. Then the pavement fucks up the walk through providing a few cracks and falters thus swapping the time signature to something a little more rightfully filthy in Celestial Terrestrial Commuters. Debates can be had over that Moog (I suspect) tone, whether sounding like a divine delicacy a la electronica, or like a series of bathtub farts. Personally, I’ll lean closer to the bathtub fart argument. Look at the way it comes in on the second little burst it has after McLaughlin and Goodman have their duet, it does a little toot-it-and-boot-it kind of thing.
Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love is a real chokepoint of intrigue. This is either a mindless 21-second free improv what-have-you or a code that’ll probably place our coordinates in the universe in the eyes of a separate civilization many galactic groups away. The main reason I say that kind of thing is I dunno why they chose to slap it on the album. Is it a result of a cryptic realization in the face of a deep philosophical squalor? Is it a small little code for something like a bandmate’s safe? Or is it just random bullshit? Well, I gotta have a stance on this somehow and this album hasn’t given me an excuse to overthink a real poetic nonsense about it so I’ll stick to the bullshit equation and call it there. That’s around 135 words spent on twenty likely meaningless seconds. But if you’re a fanatic of this record, it’s a really imposing question about something this small anyway.
Thousand Island Park indulges in dabs of intensity by making you believe the guitar and piano are going places, when instead they’re just waddling in place through feathery smoking steps left a blur from the occasional bouts of speed for the entire three minutes of its lifespan. It’s a question mark put to jazz-rock. Hope is under two minutes and proves a greater explorer than the song before it in just 10 seconds of existing. It doesn’t take long to smell a potential tango between this band and King Crimson thanks to the time signature play, the violins, the jazz and rock sauce mixing, and the dark and heavy malaise it has. It’s either influenced Red or has been wary of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic.
One Word, this is my favourite. You wanna see musicians close to a mass overdose? Billy Cobbham can do just that, slapping you five hundred times across the cheek every second before slowly simmering to one intense fuckin’ boil. In this song they are all atop the climb to insanity, victims of a push to the brink as their instruments become the victims of physical abuse. Even in the calmer moments such as the segment where the bass guitar takes the lead is still rife with suspense on when the next breakout is impending. It’s like an unwatched pot, except the pot is the size of a county and is full of enough steaming broth to wash away a whole hemisphere of cities. And in this song you’re tightroping over that pot, seeing its gargantuan bubbles and vegetables the size of skyscrapers swirling around whilst you’re walking across it on a tightrope smaller than the chances of your survival.
Hell, they even fixed the Moog in this track. Even in tranquillity, there exists these little bursts showing signs of inevitable overflow. Driving to this song will add a jet engine to your truck and ten new gears to play with by going fast as these bastards’ fingers. And to think this is close to being a more regular highly technical jazz-rock tantrum if it were not for those little moments and compositional shimmers that transform this whole thing into a suite worthy of Coltrane and the Soft Machine. Of course the drum solo works, it only further adds to everything. Your body grows restless just hearing it. Drum solos are good for the soul and metabolism, as demonstrably proven by Elvin Jones, Bruford, Paice, Liebezeit, and now Cobbham. The following segment does get too sloppy though, a bite a tad too big to be broken down in a good amount of time. Thankfully a quick sobering from Cobbham whacks the whole thing back into place and into a decent quick final blast.
Sanctuary is one of those songs you stick right after a suite in order to convey the night after that whole frenzy. It gets a very hungover start and mood, sullen like a wet bag of rocks. It’s almost tinged with doom and gloom, the damn thing. The drumming is tired, the guitar and violins commonly drone when they are unable to think or speak and are prioritizing regaining their energy, and the occasional feedback and slurp of random fidgeting sounds are portrayed through each snail’s wake of song. The pot’s soup has cooled, probably a matter of bad weather. Or maybe you’re in that pot, the heat reducing you to a skeleton, and your skeleton slowly turning a turf of the pot into a you-stock. I do not complain about this sudden regression to night.
What I can complain about, though, is the sudden cold cut to immediate rise and shine from Open Country Joy, which is nothing more than a pacing and sequencing issue. Howdy, you’ve sabotaged the vibe. Then the song realizes the mistake it has made and decides to double down by slapping you awake. This is one of few moments in history where two wrongs have created a right. Turns out it’s the hottest day of the month and that huge damn pot is safe to drink from. The keyboard even does its best impression of a guitar it has achieved on this album, and the violin is much more warmly welcomed when things have calmed down into a more appropriately set up environment. Now in comparison, this specific patch of sonic sun is shade compared to the previous swelter. The ending is untimely and abrup-
Resolution is exactly what you think it is given it’s the last song on the album, and has much more in common with hard-rock than it does with jazz fusion, evidence towards its more middlish energy which somehow is a welcome contrast to the frenetic spaz attacks and slow sullen dazes that pepper this album. Of course, even that only lasts for so long when it shows signs of slowly building up to a quick little end. This song is pretty much a pamphlet that accompanies the rest of the work.
This album’s median makes it worthwhile and very much a formidable jazz-rock outing in most of its existence, but some of those lesser moments should either be placed elsewhere on the album, followed or preceded by tracks that better suit their energies, cleaned up compositionally or on a musicianship level if it’s too sloppy, or, if in an utterly dire circumstance of being unable to communicate a decent reason as to why it should remain on the album, be omitted entirely.
An ideal Birds of Fire would have cleaned itself up a little bit more when it needed to in a way that is best communicated in the masterful shows of restraint within its predecessor, increased its length to allow greater elaboration and greater degrees on atmospheric and musical meditations, moved its tracklist around to prevent more hideous tonal shifts and degradations of momentum, and (optionally) would have closed the gap between the composition lengths so that already existing spots of ghastly nights and calms would be further optimized and submerged into.
The funny part is this would all result in just another Inner Mounting Flame. Perhaps the craze of avant-prog could be capitalized on as well as some free jazz kind of stuff? Maybe a whole 16-minute uber avant-psych-fusion-jazz-prog with the occasional languished depths of moonlit sloth slapped at the very end. Well, that’s all just bullshitting myself, but I can dream, can I? I suppose I’ve got too much an affinity for that weird shit.
Trajectory past the first listen: neutral-perhaps-positive.
Written 12/12/23, 2:00 - 3:56 PM.