The Sound of Fire—Mahavishnu Orchestra Roars Through the Rotel A11 Tribute Integrated Amplifier

May 2021

Thanks to a spate of influential recording sessions, 2021 is a landmark year for albums marking their 50th anniversary. From the Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East to The Who’s Who’s Next, 1971 saw the release of more exceptional rock or rock-related albums than perhaps any other single year, with the possible exception of 1967.

Despite the wealth of great music released in ’71, the one album that sounded completely revolutionary—and, from the perspective of a half-century, it still does—was the debut of an unlikely quintet called Mahavishnu Orchestra. The Inner Mounting Flame (LP, Columbia KC 31067), released on November 3, 1971, sounded like nothing before it, and it was much more than just the guitar playing of the leader, John McLaughlin, that was unique.

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At that time, there had been many recent albums that featured exceptional guitarists. The Allmans’ epic, with the intertwining guitars of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, had been in stores for just a few weeks, and prime-quality Hendrix, in the shape of the posthumous Rainbow Bridge, had just been released. Jimmy Page, via Led Zeppelin, had reset expectations for British rock gods, and Johnny Winter was expanding his reach beyond Texas blues. McLaughlin may have played arpeggios unlike any of his peers and channeled his Gibson Les Paul through a crunchy wall of distortion like The Kinks’ Dave Davies on steroids, but he wasn’t that far out of the norm for guitar heroes.

Was it the band’s extraordinary drummer? True, Billy Cobham was jaw-droppingly fast, fluid, and powerful, but this was the era of Keith Moon, Mitch Mitchell, John Bonham, and Ginger Baker. If you wanted to be noticed in 1971, a flailing behemoth behind the drum kit was merely table stakes.

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While McLaughlin and Cobham were the obvious flag bearers for the virtuosity that resided in the Mahavishnu Orchestra, these two alone couldn’t create something wholly unique. In fact, the duo had already appeared together on the guitarist’s earlier album My Goal’s Beyond, and while the result was stirring, it wasn’t epochal. What really set the band apart were two things: the jazz-drenched lineup of violinist Jerry Goodman, keyboardist Jan Hammer, and bassist Rick Laird; and the members’ commitment to attack McLaughlin’s music with absolute focus and determination. From the huge opening chords of “Meeting of the Spirits,” The Inner Mounting Flame seemed like an album driven by purpose. Although McLaughlin was the only band member fully committed to guru Sri Chinmoy, the recording sounded like it was made by men on a mission.

The band had arrived on the scene with some notoriety. McLaughlin, who’d been a peer of Clapton and Page in early-1960s London, arrived in the US in February 1969 as something of a cipher, and made as sudden and big a splash as Hendrix had when he had landed in England in the fall of 1966. Within hours of reaching New York City, McLaughlin was part of Miles Davis’s orbit, and being courted for jam sessions by Hendrix himself. Then, within a few more months, McLaughlin transformed himself from druggy hipster to earnest mystic. Having discovered Indian guru Sri Chinmoy’s sect, McLaughlin had eschewed drugs, adopted the haircut of an English schoolboy, and taken to dressing all in white. Laird and Hammer continued to present themselves as flower children, and Goodman had completed the journey back to the land, with the flowing hair, beard, and ripped jeans that had come to symbolize the Woodstock Generation. Meanwhile, Cobham looked like he might either sit in with Davis or go a few rounds with Muhammad Ali.

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They came from a mixture of backgrounds: An Irish friend of Yorkshireman McLaughlin, Laird had been honing his chops as the house bassist at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London. Prague-born Hammer had found some work after fleeing the Soviet invasion of what was then known as Czechoslovakia, but had been struggling in Boston, sometimes playing in strip clubs for cash. A veteran of the jazz-rock band The Flock, Chicagoan Goodman had undergone a conversion from classical music to jazz, but had briefly soured on the business and dropped out. Panamanian by birth, Cobham had glided from success to success as a drummer-for-hire in New York City, reaching as high as recording with Davis on the monumental album Bitches Brew.

Spurred by the urgings of both Davis and Sri Chinmoy, McLaughlin had set out very deliberately to create his dream band, based on what he had learned up to that point. As a rocker in pop music, he had held his own with Page on the UK studio scene. He had recorded one much-lauded album of contemporary jazz, Extrapolation, before leaving England, and then landed his gig with Davis, where he was asked to play like he’d never previously touched a guitar. In the US, McLaughlin had recorded a couple of diametrically opposed albums, Devotion and My Goal’s Beyond, on the label of Hendrix associate Alan Douglas, and had formed a very promising band called Lifetime with former Davis drummer Tony Williams and organist Larry Young. Toward the end of 1970, bassist Jack Bruce joined Lifetime, adding compositional depth and an attractive vocal alternative to Williams’s strained singing, but this wasn’t where McLaughlin saw his future. At age 29, he had amassed a wealth of experience, and he was ready for change.

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After weeks of woodshedding, the nascent Mahavishnu Orchestra was booked to play for a week in the heat of the summer of 1971 at the Gaslight at the au Go Go, in Greenwich Village, on a double bill with blues singer John Lee Hooker. The engagement was extended to three weeks as word of the band spread, and they went straight from there into the studio for Columbia Records, with McLaughlin as producer and emerging-star engineer Don Puluse behind the console. Puluse had already engineered three albums by Sly & the Family Stone and Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait for Columbia, but there was nothing really in his portfolio in 1971 to show he could transfer this kind of band’s sound from the studio to vinyl.

For a reminder of just how different The Inner Mounting Flame sounded the first time I heard it, I pulled out my original LP and swapped a new Rotel A11 Tribute integrated amplifier ($799.99, all prices in USD) into the sound chain between my Fluance RT83 turntable and Q Acoustics 3050i speakers.

The A11 Tribute—named in honor of audio legend Ken Ishiwata, who died unexpectedly in November 2019—seemed like the ideal amp for what I had in mind, which was to compare several versions of the same recording. In addition to the original LP, I had a remixed and remastered CD (Columbia/Legacy CK 65523) that was released in 1998 when Columbia was working extensively with the late Bob Belden to organize the catalogs of Davis, McLaughlin, and the band Weather Report, and a high-resolution download (FLAC 24-bit/96kHz, Sony Music) of the ’98 production.

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A meat-and-potatoes Rotel amp—a fixture in so many apartments and student houses in the early 1970s—reflected the album’s original vintage. Ishiwata’s connection to Marantz—the amp owned by many of those who didn’t go the Rotel route—was an added bonus.

Some in the industry have been puzzled that Rotel wound up paying tribute to Ishiwata, who was so closely identified with a rival manufacturer. Daren Orth, Rotel’s chief technology officer, provided the back story: “Having both been in the hi-fi industry for a similar amount of time, I was in the same audiophile circles with Ken over the years, as was the Tachikawa family in Japan—founders and owners of Rotel. There was mutual respect of the talent and market position, and a long desire to work together, but the opportunity never arose. An opportunity did finally arrive in the late summer of [2019] when initial discussions began, with the project becoming a reality in September. All of the Rotel engineering team were delighted at finally having the opportunity to work with Ken.”

A comparison of the specs for the standard A11 and the Tribute model doesn’t illustrate what Ishiwata brought to the project. According to Rotel, his cooperation in the design process resulted a number of improvements:

  • Improved components that offer higher performance throughout the signal path
  • Upgraded capacitors in the amplifier, preamp, and volume stages, as well as upgraded resistors in the amplifier stage
  • Custom damping materials to reduce ringing and further isolate, insulate, and dampen any vibrations

Visually, the A11 Tribute is pretty plain: neither a throwback to an earlier era nor as contemporary as my regular NAD D 3045. The Rotel’s pushbutton controls—two speaker selectors, five input selectors, three menu controls, and power—are unsophisticated, and the large LED screen and grated top add to the utilitarian look of the box. What does provide something of a throwback feel is the inclusion of tone and balance controls, allowing the listener to tweak the output to suit their sound preferences and environment. The traditional approach also extends to the input options on the back, which are exclusively analog on RCAs, requiring me to eschew the coaxial connection I normally use for my NAD C 538 CD player. Pre-outs are included to feed an additional power amp or a subwoofer.

Unlike my NAD D 3045, the A11 Tribute—rated at 50Wpc at 8 ohms—is primarily analog, so I couldn’t use the USB output from my MacBook Pro. Fortunately, the A11 Tribute has a Bluetooth antenna that feeds a Texas Instruments DAC, allowing me to stream the hi-rez version of The Inner Mounting Flame from the Vox Music Player app on my laptop.

But I began with the LP.

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As I mentioned, the album begins with a portentous gesture—a loud, thick, slightly dissonant chord that a guitarist friend with more sophisticated ears than mine thinks could be an Fmin/maj7(b13), with an augmented fifth played by Laird to add some tension. The band then hits seven more dense clusters—all equally jarring. It’s an opening that can’t be ignored.

As “Meeting of the Spirits” began to unspool, I made a decision, and lifted the tonearm. Since the A11 Tribute offers the option to adjust the tone, I decided to see where that led me. It allows the listener to manually adjust the treble and bass, or to select one of the preset tone modes: Rotel Boost, which the company says provides “a unique blend of tonal characteristics”; and Rotel Max, which delivers substantially boosted bass. These tone modes can also be bypassed. After a couple of passes through the LP at different settings, I decided I liked the Tone Bypass setting just fine, trusting the ears of Ishiwata and the team at Rotel for a good, balanced sound.

What strikes you first about The Inner Mounting Flame is the sophistication of McLaughlin’s playing. Although he had flourished on the London scene and played his share of blues and R&B music, he had moved far beyond that foundation—which remained home base for Clapton, Page, Hendrix, and most of his other peers—and by 1971 had integrated more advanced harmonies, non-Western scales, and a different style of pick attack into his playing. Adapting some of the approaches favored by sitar players, McLaughlin had developed a somewhat percussive style, and that strengthened the bond between him and Cobham. Much like the connection that Betts and drummer Butch Trucks illustrated on the Allmans’ At Fillmore East, when McLaughlin and Cobham locked in to a riff, it was extraordinarily powerful and propulsive.

The other thing about the recording that sounds so different is the way the Mahavishnu Orchestra blends distortion and velocity. While guitarists like Clapton, Page, and Hendrix manipulated their tones through wah pedals, fuzz boxes, and other devices, they usually employed their distorted palette in a broad-brush approach, dripping colors around like Jackson Pollock. To stretch that painterly metaphor, McLaughlin splashed color like Pollock, but did it like the pointillist Georges Seurat—with lightning-fast picking, which, when channeled through the distortion, gave his attack incredible depth.

Meanwhile, Hammer was producing distorted keyboard sounds, feeding his electric piano through a ring modulator to create multiple frequencies, all while playing with the same speed and aggression as McLaughlin and Cobham.

Although McLaughlin’s first choice for a violinist had been Frenchman Jean-Luc Ponty, Goodman turned out to be an ideal voice on the debut album. Playing through amplification, his role was to be the unadorned lead voice, soaring above the others.

Despite these highly distinctive melodic voices, Cobham is the member of the band who grabs most of the attention, due to his playing speed and unrelenting intensity. Truth be told, Cobham did nothing other first-rate drummers couldn’t do when playing on their own; but none of those drummers had been given the freedom to pull out their best licks throughout compositions, and do it in such a wide range of time signatures.

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All through the album’s complex compositions, no two of which are remotely alike, it often sounds like all five members are soloing simultaneously and at top speed.

While “Meeting of the Spirits” is built around a series of upward movements, “Dawn” presents a more stealthy approach, with Hammer’s electric piano giving way to an elegiac theme played in unison by Goodman and McLaughlin, and then to some exquisite single-note, anthemic playing by McLaughlin.

The third piece, “The Noonward Race,” blows the roof right off—delivering the kind of virtuosity that causes musicians to question their own ability. From Goodman’s soaring violin to Hammer’s ring-modulated keys to McLaughlin’s high-velocity solos, the performances set the stage for the type of intense, technique-heavy expression that would come to characterize bands like Chick Corea’s Return To Forever and Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House as so-called jazz-rock fusion music took hold in the ’70s.

From there, it’s an unexpected step to the gentle, acoustic “A Lotus on Irish Streams.” At least, unexpected for those unfamiliar with McLaughlin’s deeply spiritual album My Goal’s Beyond, where he had displayed his mastery of the acoustic guitar.

On the second side of the LP, the band sticks to its amplified approach: “Vital Transformation,” with its jaw-dropping unison playing; “The Dance of Maya,” which manages to transition from a dark introduction that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Black Sabbath album to an oddly phrased shuffle; the triplet-based “You Know You Know,” with its crisp drumming, surprising dynamic shifts, and majestic guitar theme; and finally, the mind-boggling time signatures and ensemble playing of “Awakening.”

It is the type of LP—with the kind of pacing and breathless conclusion—that prompts you to immediately flip the record back to side 1 and begin again. It’s a whole lot to take in.

For the sake of comparing the A11 Tribute’s various inputs, I decided to concentrate on three versions of “The Noonward Race.”

Starting with the LP, I heard the years fall away from my 50-year-old vinyl. The A11 Tribute’s phono stage delivered warm, fulsome sound throughout a range of volume settings. As McLaughlin launched into his second solo, which begins with some Hendrix-like riffing, his guitar amp set to a coruscating tone, I cranked the volume up as high as my ears could tolerate. The A11 Tribute handled it with ease, staying clean and clear.

When I switched to the CD version, Belden’s production work was immediately apparent. Cobham’s drums sounded fuller and the entire soundstage opened up. The A11 Tribute delivered Goodman’s violin work with particular clarity and bite.

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Finally, it was on to the Bluetooth feed, and while Belden’s revised soundstage remained broad, I detected a loss of depth in Cobham’s drums, and a bit less headroom during Goodman’s solo. But the shift was subtle enough to make me question my own perception, so I made a mental note to check out the Bluetooth results through further listening. Over the course of about a week, some of the music I listened to via Bluetooth sounded the way I anticipated, but some pieces I streamed from my cloud library through the A11 Tribute sounded a bit colder and more metallic than I’m used to hearing.

Overall, though, this integrated amplifier lived up to its promise of delivering a relatively pure listening experience. Although it won’t satisfy those of us who want a better balance of analog and digital options, it’s an attractive package at its modest price point; an ideal way to rediscover and pay tribute to 50-year-old masterpieces.

. . . James Hale
jamesh@soundstagenetwork.com