(All Album Reviews by Burgess Penguin)
1969, a very turbulent year for those of us who remember it.
After just having left the Miles Davis enclave, Tony Williams wanted to create original and personal music that reflected what was going on around him. Under the influence of Hendrix, Coltrane and his mentor Miles, Tony found two other kindred spirits in organist Larry Young, and a young unknown Brit guitarist by the name of John McLaughlin (whom he met while recording Miles's groundbreaking In A Silent Way").
Next thing you know, these three headstrong musical visionaries locked themselves in a room, turned the amps up to 11 and gave birth to jazz-rock fusion as we know it. Emergency is the definitive statement of risk-taking and exploring unknown territory. Like walking into a primeaval forest, it's full of wonders and terrors aplenty.
In all it's loud, confident, psychedelic reckless unpredictiable glory, it caused more than a few straightlaced jazz critics to recoil in horror, but to others, it was nothing short of a revelation and revolution.
With a menacing snare drum roll, the band kicks off the revolution in take-no-prisoners fashion with the title cut, Larry Young playing a smoky bluesy descending organ figure with Williams unleashing barrages of brilliant ideas from behind his drum kit. From there, John McLaughlin (who from this point on I'll affectionately refer to as Johnny Mac)takes off into the nether regions with his developing Coltrane-meets-Hendrix guitar style, that would achieve fuller realization in the Mahavishnu Orchestra a few years later.
In every song, the band really tuned into each other as evidenced by unpredictable shifts in meter and exaggerated dynamics at the drop of a hat. Following the example of late-period Coltrane, the band dispensed with confining chord changes and instead favored modally based improvisation and even began to blur the line between written and improvised passages allowing for some real inspired musical madness, something the fledgeling Weather Report (fellow graduates from the University of Miles) would develop more fully a couple years later.
If I had to pick a definitive Lifetime piece, it would definitely be Johnny Mac's "Spectrum" (written under the pseudonym of A. Hall for some legal reasons I can't even remember now), featuring breakneck stop-start passages, a daunting melody line and Johnny Mac's embryonic guitar madness. Just as mind-blowing is Larry Young's cranked up smoky, mysterious Hammond organ work. He definitely took the Coltrane-meets-Hendrix idea to heart as well, unleashing brilliant flurries of notes, smoky mysterious chording and howling screaming feedback that Jimi would've loved!
If the album has any flaws, they are:
1) Rather sub-standard recording quality (prone to distortion and such, you can even hear amps buzzing and other extraneous noises) The CD remastering has cleaned things up a bit, but even then there's only so much you can do with the original source tapes.
2) One word: VOCALS. This was the one major mistep of Lifetime. Tony Williams could NEVER sing, period. The dippy psychedelic lyrics in a couple spots didn't help either. Thankfully, the vocal passages are few and mercifully short.
But if you can look past the flaws, this is an essential historical document of a musical revolution and still to this day can be very instructive to those who are open to discovering its many wonders and terrifying feats of musical madness.
One for the ages!