Mahavishnu Orchestra - Apocalypse album review

McLaughlin’s orchestral manoeuvres score a hit

Mahavishnu Orchestra - Apocalypse album cover

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When his burning desire to augment the original Mahavishnu Orchestra with actual orchestral players was testily rejected by the members of that group, John McLaughlin had to wait until the end of 1973 and the implosion of the Birds Of Fire line-up before being able to put his plan into practice.

That producer George Martin declared the subsequent recording not only the most difficult but also the most satisfying of his star-studded career gives some idea of the depth of McLaughlin’s first proper dive into the symphonic deep end. Fleet-fingered violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, powerhouse drummer Michael Walden, bassist Ralphe Armstrong and keyboardist Gayle Moran hold down the rock end of the equation. McLaughlin, in collaboration with veteran arranger Mike Gibbs and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, combine to put what is in effect a five-movement symphony through its paces.

The strings, brass and woodwind sections are frequently tasked with carrying McLaughlin’s trademark arpeggio guitar runs in the thunderous Vision Is A Naked Sword and, in its calmer sections, his more soothing, lilting melodicism during Wings Of Karma. The devotional, happy-clappy lyrics of Smile Of The Beyond come tinged with Gayle Moran’s cut-glass operatic diction and at least afford a few moments’ repose before the ensemble set sail for choppier waters.

However, the quintet aren’t slow in showing what they’re capable of. Thanks to the generosity of the writing, they all get their turn in the spotlight. The scrambling, scorching runs in the early stages of Hymn To Him are some of McLaughlin’s most dramatic. Clocking in at a little over 19 minutes, the baton-passing between guitar and Ponty’s twisting, sinuous lines amid the tumultuous climax is a high point.

With sweeping vistas, thoughtful expositions and harmonic and tonal contrasts, this isn’t the usual exchange of timbre and dynamics. Though 1975’s Visions Of The Emerald Beyond remains this incarnation’s masterpiece, as compositions and performances go, the Apocalypse album is both a formidable and, perhaps more importantly, credible achievement.

Sadly, this reissue comes without a new remix or any extras – a missed opportunity because within the guitarist’s overall catalogue, Apocalypse broke new ground and was his most ambitious undertaking up to that point. Nevertheless, as McLaughlin enters his 75th year, its reappearance provides a timely reminder of his singular, determined vision and vaulting ambition.

Sid Smith

Sid's feature articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Prog, Classic Rock, Record Collector, Q, Mojo and Uncut. A full-time freelance writer with hundreds of sleevenotes and essays for both indie and major record labels to his credit, his book, In The Court Of King Crimson, an acclaimed biography of King Crimson, was substantially revised and expanded in 2019 to coincide with the band’s 50th Anniversary. Alongside appearances on radio and TV, he has lectured on jazz and progressive music in the UK and Europe.  

A resident of Whitley Bay in north-east England, he spends far too much time posting photographs of LPs he's listening to on Twitter and Facebook.