John Mclaughin’s Industrial Zen
My first impressions are that on this, like so many of McLaughlin’s solo releases, there is an abundance of recapitulation, both stylistically, thematically and sonically but it is definitely tinged with an Industrial sound (not perhaps, in the sledgehammer way of Nine Inch Nails, but sonically referenced) and shows that his overall playing is moving forward into chromatic areas that we haven’t heard from him for some time. Thankfully his playing is also still urgent, often quite ascerbic in tone and certainly more aggressive than of late with RS.
In terms of ‘conceptual continuity’, McLaughlin seems to evoke the same legato theme in several places throughout the album, which is naggingly familiar and yet defies placement of the original. There are many echoes of things past within the compositions, from Electric Dreams & Sighsperiod, early Shakti themes revisited, Music Spoken Here, sonic recall of the revised Mahavishnu of the 80’s and Heart of Things, together with technology-fueled modern settings and sonic palette. A real Potpourri !
Five of the tracks are dedicated in title or in parenthesis to great personalities; Jaco Pastorius (For Jaco), Wayne’s Way (Shorter), Michael Brecker (To Bop or not to Be), Senor CS (Carlos Santana) and Dear Dalai Lama.
His time with Remember Shakti seems to have fostered a real love of the double percussionist setting, and five out of the eight tracks have two drummers; he teams the english lads, Mark Mondesir and Gary Husband (on Drums) together, whilst enjoying the firey counterpoint of Zakir and Dennis Chambers on a couple of tracks, similar to the trio format he tried out at the Clapton festival in Texas last year. On these tracks, Gary Husband takes over keyboard duties and at last with this recording, the mighty talent that is GH is finally revealed in evidence for all.
The brisk opener For Jaco has a sound reminiscent of the HoT line up, featuring Bill Evans on sax, brassy synth patches and a sinuous joyful theme, with Mondesir and Husband kicking up a great cloud of dust in the percussion department. Mclaughlin’s solo here is reminiscent of the All In The Family solo from Inner Worlds, a great spiral of chromatic intervals climbing up into the sky…..A theme built on the same melodic device as that of Meeting of the Spirits, slightly altered rhythmically, signals the solo from Evans which further references the HoT sound on the track. The long theme is then recapitulated, only more so, Evans and McLaughlin in perfect unison. The mood becomes reflective only at the end, where the bassist duly quotes Jaco’s Continuum as the track fades.
New Blues Old Bruise, McLaughlin has Vinnie Coliauta on drums and the very brave Eric Johnson on guitar to spar with. Eric represents the ‘new’ fusion school of guitarists and does them proud but really one wonders why McLaughlin decided to use another guitarist at all. Perhaps to further spur himself on, since his solo at the end of this track is one of his most aggressive and easily eclipses Johnson’s effort. Composition wise, this is something which wouldn’t have been out of place in the MO itself. Think of the way L Shankar or Jerry Goodman would have made this sound then. A brief ambient moment sets up McLaughlin’s glorious reply to Johnson’s solo and after a return to the curious vocal sample chord sequence of the beginning theme, we dive into a heavy dub section with a moog solo very evocative of Stu Goldberg in the One Truth Band. This juxtaposition of high energy fusion and more considered ambient ‘mystic’ grooves continues throughout the whole recording.
One of the many high points of the album is ‘Wayne’s Way’. A composition which appears to start with trade mark Shorter themes and musical techniques and gives sexy saxist Ada Ravotti a chance to thrill. An angular sequenced chord motif changes gear up to double time and then features some breakneck Mclaughlin soloing over the truly thunderous rhythmic combination of Zakir and Dennis Chambers.
In Just So, Only More So, we have this familiar theme mentioned above contrasted against some dark and industrial percussive sequences. The rhythm instruments are all programmed on this track except Matty Garrison’s extremely bubbly bass sliding all over the place. Evans and McLaughlin are featured in duet form here, and then McLaughlin switches the mood drastically mid-revelry with the intercession of the repeated dub like ambient drum programming of the opening theme, which is both evocative and moody.
To Bop or Not to Be is dedicated to Michael Brecker and indeed some of the soloing is so reminiscent of Brecker’s style you could be forgiven for thinking that McLaughlin had actually been studying it. Starting with the now familiar sequence from his website indent, it is built around a motif which sounds like a reworking of an original Shakti theme from around the time of Natural Elements. McLaughlin employs a guitar + synth patch sound for his solo over a wonderfully bobbing and weaving rhythmic track of Zakir, Chambers and Garrison. Again his soloing is very evocative of his chromatic playing in later Miles and One Truth period and Otmaro Ruiz answers beautifully with a solo very hip to Mclaughlin’s own phrasing and Hammer’s moog sound. Some very Zawinul-type rhythmic programming take the track out to fade.
Dear Dalai Lama starts almost as a tone poem wonderfully sung by Mahadevan and also quotes the ‘mystery theme’ again in the synth line and Ada’s sax statements. Just when the whole thing appears to be mellowing out zakir’s tablas suddenly send the piece charging up through the gears and with McLaughlin’s guitar set to an organ patch he trades phrases with Rovatti. Then we’re into battle. Chambers fires up and he and Mclaughlin go for it with all guns blazing in a thrilling trio with Zakir bounding along in support.
McLaughlin employs some very jagged guitar sounds coupled with MIDI controlled synth timbres, presumably triggered from the Godin or even the synclavier (?). This is possibly the most edgy sounding electric McLaughlin that we have heard in a good while, although he firmly continues to employ only minimal pitch bend (with the palm on the wammy bar) and there is no return to the old style of radical string bending of the Mahavishnu days.
The speed and clarity of delivery though, is still awesome and the rhythmic and melodic inventiveness, whilst still characteristically McLaughlin, does stretch out past his now trademark phrases and flurries. If you think of the high points of his trading with Chambers on such titles as Jazz Jungle from The Promise then you start to approach the sense of this, only more so. Phenomenon/Compulsion from Electric Guitarist is also another good descriptor for the propulsive impetus of this piece. The opening exchanges are repeated again at the end as a postscript perhaps as some comment on ‘before’ and ‘after’ Chinese interference ?
Senor CS has the Brits back in the drum seats, all latin clatter but only vaguely reminiscent of anything Senor CS himself might attempt. With a chord sequence not unlike ‘Nostalgia’ from Mahavishnu, McLaughlin winds another ‘sounds familiar’ theme around the samba before racking up into another classic solo, this time using triadic inventions and a sound not unlike his more recent on-stage sound with Shakti; clear and bright but with a pleasing sustain. Once again the double drummer is deployed. With intricate bass (this time Hadrian Feraud, sounding quite like Dominique Di Piazza) and double-tracked Gary Husband miraculously playing keyboards and ferocious drums at one and the same time, McLaughlin weaves his magic tapestry across a shimmering percussive background.
The last track Mother Nature, features the now familiar yet exceptional vocal talents of Shankar Mahadevan, the fifth member of Remember Shakti. In this sort of modern take on When Blue Turns Gold , Mahadevan sings in English about ‘The Lotus of Peace’ whilst McLaughlin chants meditatively in the background over a percussive sequence and features a new extension to McLaughlins armoury, a fretless guitar solo. The vocal improvisation at the end is beautiful and moving, whilst McLaughlins repeated mantra has echoes of The Life Divine period of Love, Devotion and Surrender.
Altogether this is one of Mclaughlin’s best efforts in a long while. He draws deeply on the huge well of experience that is his own musical history and yet manages to present it all in a thoroughly modern setting. Considering the provenance of this music goes back well over 2000 years, talk of ‘innovation’ and fresh ideas is rendered somewhat pointless. What we have here is not only a document of one man’s musical journey through a lifetime but also a comment and a vision which is totally of the present. I confidently predict this CD will sit in your musical ‘in-tray’ for some time to come.