Mahavishnu: Radio-Activity






Mahavishnu (Wounded Bird Records WOU 5190)

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John McLaughlin (Synclavier II, digital guitar, Les Paul Special),

Bill Evans (sax, flute), Mitchell Forman (keyboards), Jonas Hellborg (bass), Billy Cobham (drums)


Composed by John McLaughlin


Recorded: Paris, France, April-May 1984


Rating: 88/100 (learn more)

The Mahavishnu Orchestra was back! Well, not exactly. It was now called just Mahavishnu and only John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham remained from the original band. We didn't know it at the time, but there was a plan afoot for a complete reunion. But it didn't get far, and in fact McLaughlin and Cobham had a big row over it. The relationship between these two musical giants continued to deteriorate. Cobham never toured with the new Mahavishnu, and the two don't speak to this day. It is one of the saddest breakups in fusion music history.

In 1984 I wasn't so crazy about "Radio-Activity." Lots of the synthesizer and keyboard sounds and effects heard were actually coming from McLaughlin's Synclavier guitar. McLaughlin had a new toy and he was overusing it in his desire to push digital technology. The problem with McLaughlin playing a guitar synthesizer was that you really didn't get to hear him play guitar. Instead he was playing every other instrument. Often you could not pick him out from keyboardist Mitch Forman, saxophonist Bill Evans or even bassist Jonas Hellborg. Something was missing. I did see the band a few times, and in person the music was compelling. But much of the appeal was visual. You realized it was McLaughlin making a lot more of that sound on the record than you thought. To see him do it live was fascinating. But ultimately, as many fans vocally made clear at McLaughlin's shows, you wanted to hear him do his ripping on a real guitar.

It is now more than two decades later. As I listen to "Radio-Activity," it crosses my mind that perhaps the time is finally right for Mahavishnu. This tune is a killer. It is subversive and frightening. It is still futuristic. The spine of the tune is a strong funk backbeat. Cobham's power is evident. Missiles are shot overhead. As I now realize, McLaughlin is the one tearing everything to shreds. Forman and Hellborg are locked-in tight. Bill Evans (sax) is blowing notes off the Geiger-counter scale. I couldn't really find the groove of this piece back in 1984. Today I can't escape from it.

The tune and performance receive a 95 rating. I am removing 7 points from that score because of the Synclavier. I don't care how much McLaughlin loved it or how good he was at playing the damn thing.

Reviewer: Walter Kolosky

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