LP REVIEW: Miles Davis – Agharta

Miles Davis – Agharta
(Music on Vinyl MOVLP134. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)

This double album, originally released by Columbia in 1975/76, sees Miles Davis moving well beyond his two great quintets and approaching the end of his experimental fusion period, which began in earnest with In a Silent Way in 1969. Depending on your point of view, throughout the 1970s Miles was either breaking ground in exciting new territory or wading ever deeper into an endless swamp. (Personally, I wouldn’t be without Bitches Brew.) In 1975 he was concluding an intensive two year period of constant live performance and was about to vanish into retirement for half a decade.

Agharta derived from an extended tour of Japan. On one memorable day — February 1st, in Osaka — the afternoon performance gave rise to one double live album and the evening show to another. The ‘evening’ album was Pangea while the ‘afternoon’ one was Agharta. Pangea was the Palaeozoic supercontinent which would fragment to give us the world we know today; Agharta, a fabled underground city. These titles suggest that either Miles or Columbia wanted to signal to prospective listeners that they weren’t in for an accessible and relaxing dose of smooth dinner jazz. The message got through… Both albums were released in Japan in 1975, and while Agharta appeared in America in 1976, it was 1990 before Pangea reached the States.

Agharta is a guitar-heavy album. Prelude (Part I) commences with sinister rumblings and chucka-wucka guitar licks which wouldn’t have been out of place on Isaac Hayes’s Theme from Shaft. The scratchy, lolloping guitar is mostly the work of Reggie Lucas but synthesiser wizard Pete Cosey also made contributions on that instrument, running his guitar through a number of devices including a ring modulator — a piece of technology familiar to anyone who has heard the voice of a Dalek. Miles provides a wailing, high reaching excursion, but the order of the day here is more ensemble playing than soloing — although that could of course be partly an artefact of the live recording, with the instruments sometimes mixed into a tight mass.

This is an enigmatic album. In addition to the density and length of the playing, there’s the question of titles. Side 3 is in many ways the highlight of the twin discs. But although it’s entitled Interlude, apparently Side 3 and Side 4 have been mislabelled on all vinyl releases and it is actually Theme From Jack Johnson, consisting of Right Off from Miles’s Jack Johnson album with a quotation from So What off Kind of Blue as its coda. In any case, it’s another guitar hero excursion with Lucas playing fat, rolling chords and Al Foster providing violently slapped drums and Sonny Fortune’s braying, pagan sax enshrouding them. When Miles comes in, he applies a gloss to the whole thing, as if he’s spray-painting a sculpture the others have been constructing, his sharp and sour tones giving new definition and highlights to the piece.

Music on Vinyl have come up with a handsomely packaged reissue of this swansong of the electric period Miles. They’ve used the American cover art, rather than the Japanese version, and the LPs themselves are on 180 gram vinyl. Agharta fills in a gap of the shelves of serious Miles Davis collectors everywhere. But if the label is casting about for their next Miles reissue, how about Filles de Kilimanjaro, an electronic Davis masterpiece if ever there was one.

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