- they're named after a legendary city said to dwell inside the Earth's core and a theoretical supercontinent of the Earth in pre-historic times,
- they're equally spacey and Earth-y, like most of Miles's fusion era,
- along with the visualizer, they share a sense of things constantly shifting and changing yet also often seeming to stand still
As far as I know, it's still hard to track down copies of these albums. The early 90s CDs I have of each are plagued by muddy, poorly mixed sound, especially on Pangaea. I don't know if it's something endemic to the original live tapes or what. However, as with a bootleg tape of a particularly crackling show by the Grateful Dead, even poor sound quality can't hold back the essence of the music. And words like “essence” definitely spring to mind, since the stuff Miles Davis was doing live on stage in 1974 and 1975 was some spooky, voodoo, psychedelic, acid/funk/rock jazzy shit. There are moments of deep improvisation that recall other contemporary stuff that was being done by bands as disparate as the Grateful Dead, Fela Kuti, Frank Zappa, and King Crimson.
Miles was truly doing his own thing with his band, though. There are minutes at a time where you would never guess it's a Miles Davis album, since his trademark trumpet is only sparingly employed. And even when it is, it's usually run through a wah-wah pedal, making it more akin to guitar with the way he uses it to slash and yelp across the soundscape. This, along with the more often employed (and more divisive) screeching stabs he hammers out on the organ, seem to be as much about Miles contributing to the grooves as it is about directing the energy and movement of the band. Keep in mind, too, that this is Miles without a true keyboard player and with two guitarists and an electric bassist.
Thus by the recording of Agharta and Pangaea on February 1, 1975, most traditional jazz fans and critics had turned their backs on Miles. It's true he didn't have the trumpet chops he used to but there's no denying his vision and the totality of it. Some credit always has to go to producer Teo Marcero for his extensive edits and work on Miles's fusion-era studio albums, but presumably he had little say on the material on these live albums other than to record or mix them. So in a sense this is the purest music of this era for Miles, and certainly the closest he got to fully purging all the European influences from his band and, to paraphrase the man himself, getting down into 'some deep African things.' The band moves effortlessly between the textures and varying energy of Bitches Brew, A Tribute To Jack Johnson, and On The Corner while only a few times actually playing any of the songs or basic themes from those records.
I'm not sure I would say this makes Agharta and Pangaea better than the well known studio stuff. There's no denying the genius of Miles Davis and producer Teo Marcero in constructing the finished products mentioned above; side one of Jack Johnson and the title track of Bitches Brew are all the evidence you need. Interesting, then, that most of Miles's fusion-era records were pieced together from long studio improvisations and jams. The most direct route, for those interested in this sort of thing, comes in comparing Live/Evil (which mixes in studio material and isn't strictly live) to the excellent The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 boxset, from which the live stuff was culled.
Agharta and Pangaea, however, are in a league of their own. This is alchemical music: the flaws and moments that don't work are constantly overshadowed by the sense of exploring the unknown corners where the borders between genres meet. I'd be interested to hear what Teo and Miles would have done if they had chopped these live recordings up into a studio album or something like Live/Evil. This means they aren't as consistently good as they could be with some studio edits, though the trade-off is that they feel more...authentic. Raw, perhaps, is a better word. They're like Miles's version of a Fela Kuti album: these songs are so long and morphing that it's nearly impossible to discuss the music itself. In that regard, you'll usually just get totally lost in the grooves and atmospheres, which is something I wish I could say more often.