Mission of Burma – [Discography]

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

In the realm of indie rock, many bands are regarded as peerless in their approach to music making, but few were so far ahead of their time as Mission of Burma. The band pioneered effects and ideas that rock groups are only now beginning to catch up with and emulate. In addition to cranking their amplifiers up louder than personal safety levels would allow (they wound up going on extended hiatus when guitarist Roger Miller’s tinnitus got so bad that he was in danger of losing his hearing completely), the introduction of tape manipulator/loop manufacturer Martin Swope added new and otherworldly sounds to the combination of free jazz, psychedelia, experimental music and punk that MoB members Clint Conley, Miller and Peter Prescott were developing. Even with that untimely end to the band factored in though, with the salubrious and genre-bending stew that Mission of Burma was cooking up, how were they not the biggest thing in the world for a short period? Unfortunately, as author Michael Azerrad put it in his book Our Band Could Be Your Life, “Mission of Burma’s only sin was bad timing—the support system that would spring up for underground bands later in the decade largely didn’t exist yet. No matter how brilliant Mission of Burma was, nationally there were relatively few clubs they could play, few radio stations to air their music, few magazines to write about it, and few stores to sell it. And yet what little network that existed was able to sustain the band for several years, until their bittersweet end.”

Now, twenty-eight years after Rick Harte helped Mission of Burma release their debut single, “Academy Fight Song” backed with “Max Ernst," the world might be ready for the Burma effect and so Matador Records, in partnership with Harte’s Ace of Hearts label, is releasing remixed and re-mastered editions of the band’s original catalogue.

Signals, Calls and Marches (Definitive Edition CD & DVD)
(Ace of Hearts/Matador)

As with so many of the releases that came out of the American underground in the 1980s, the inaugural Mission of Burma EP, Signals, Calls and Marches, was the culmination of two years of work (the band was formed in 1979), writing and development that the band prayed would give positive results. Blessedly, the group managed to capture the power, urgency and nervous energy right from the opening blast of “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver."

For a first outing, Signals… set the bar incredibly high with its remarkably refined tone and singular vision. Mission of Burma at no point spoon-feed listeners, play down to them or even start with any semblance of a conventional roadmap for uninitiated listeners to follow; from the initial paranoid snap of “Revolver," Miller and bassist Clint Conley duel for control of “Outlaw” with jagged, searing passages that never exactly repeat in the conventional verse/chorus/verse form so much as play similar variations of the parts while Miller snarls out vocals that are knocked down repeatedly by Peter Prescott’s cascading drums. The trend continues through “This Is Not a Photograph” and “All World Cowboy Romance” that also see tape-manipulating man of mystery Martin Swope finding his place in the mix and cementing a wall of sound for which the band would be known during its short career. This first release presents Mission of Burma as the ultimate aesthete’s punk band—like Television would have been if Syd Barrett had been a founding member—and finds each track meeting the listener’s brain like the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. Signals, Calls and Marches makes an impression on the minds of listeners like a sledge hammer on a car door and if evidence is necessary to illustrate that fact, one need look no further than the list of musicians that were touched so greatly that they’ve paid homage on their own releases: R.E.M. did “Academy Fight Song” while Moby covered “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” on Animal Rights and those are just a couple of names to illustrate the breadth of influence. The EP itself will never sound quite the same after the shock of the first listen and it’ll color your perception of any other record you hear afterward—it’s just that passionate and inspired.

Included on Matador’s CD re-release of Signals is the band’s first single (and probably best-known release), “Academy Fight Song” b/w “Max Ernst” as well as two previously unreleased songs, “Devotion” and “Execution." Listening back to it now, “Academy Fight Song” is still rightly this band’s crowning achievement and the archetypal calling card for everything that would follow it—a volley of snares open the song and from there the onslaught is unstoppable. Conley’s bass charges forth and—together with Prescott’s drums—levels everything in its path, but when you hear Miller rail, “I’m not judging you, I’m judging me," you feel it in your chest and want to cheer. The flipside, “Max Ernst," with its punching drums and angular guitars, almost feels like a relief by comparison.

“Devotion” and “Execution” are the closest that Mission of Burma ever came to conventional punk rock songs. With the noticeably distorted guitars, most conventional time signature and rhythm the band ever wrote manifesting here, it proves that Mission of Burma could have been a great punk band too but, in comparison, it’s a relief that the band didn’t chase this muse any further. They’re interesting diversions twenty-seven years after the band’s mythos was set though.

The DVD disc in the set goes further back into the band’s history. Unearthing shows from the band’s first and second years on the scene (1979 and 80), we’re afforded a glimpse at the band’s earliest beginning that also illustrates the core values of the band: ceaseless sets that demolished audiences with their raw power and intricacy in spite of the dense sound and terrifying volume are a sight to behold here. Somehow the band straddled the lines between punk’s attitude and delivery and an art student’s aloof presentation on stage that was hypnotic; audiences lived and died by the interplay between Conley’s bass and Miller’s guitar and you can actually watch it here. An ecstatic cover of The Doors’ “Break on Through” seals the deal and makes this DVD an essential watch, but it doesn’t take away from the originals—even in 1980, it was apparent that Mission of Burma was destined for greatness, it was really just a matter of when it would happen.

Vs. (Definitive Edition CD & DVD)
(Ace Of Hearts/Matador)

After the initial shock of Signals, Calls And Marches, it took Mission of Burma less than a year to raise the capitol that ultimately funded the band’s full-length, Vs. (no small feat for an underground band in the 80s whose expenses totaled $48,948 in 1981 against their $50,436 total income for that year)—a testament to the group’s work ethic. For this album, they doubled their reserves of stamina (Vs. boasts twelve tracks to Signals’ original six) as well as sharpening both their aggressive tendencies and aesthetic delicacy, which are instantly noticeable in songs like “Secrets," the sonorous “Trem Two," stomping “Ballad of Johnny Burma” and classic “That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate.” It's the band’s expanded use of space in the mixes as well as their development of dynamic shifting from crushing, distorted mania to tension-filled, but more orchestrated passages. Emboldened by the group’s initial success, Miller gets more vocally adventurous too, where once his delivery felt passionate but tentative (read: he’d reach a boiling point and belt a line or two before recoiling in the mix, but here he delivers a succession of muscular performances) there are no holds barred as his vocals get more dramatic and go from a whisper to a scream at will. These songs also having the benefit of more seasoning; almost all of them were in the set list when Mission of Burma released its first EP but there wasn’t time to record them.

The power and electricity is palpable in these songs. Vs. does better than just offer a snapshot of a band that might be on the cusp of breaking through, it presents the image as factual and inevitable.

For Matador’s re-release, the vaults were raided again, but this time the results are stellar and illustrate that Mission of Burma had more tricks up its sleeve. The starkly non-musical “Laugh the World Away” yields a moment of forgotten transcendence as the rave-up more closely resembles a hybrid of free-jazz and textural meltdown than it does a rock song and, when placed next to the band’s more conventionally melodic number, “Forget," it makes a convincing case for Mission of Burma being able to play both ends of the spectrum.

Judging by the crowd that the band is playing before on the DVD appended to the album [the show occurred in 1983 –ed], listeners—and a lot of them—caught on quickly too. For an underground show of the day (and it was the early set—the first of two that the band played), the sheer number of people in the audience is staggering and the band repays them for showing up in kind; the set on the DVD can only be called essential. While calling them hits may be overstepping because at no point in its career has Mission of Burma been more than a cult band, not one of the songs didn’t become famous and not one isn’t played to the hilt.

…As close as they were getting though, large-scale fame was not in the cards for Mission of Burma. The tinnitus that Roger Miller had been suffering from even before the band really got started was worsening at a fantastic rate and, heeding his doctor’s advice, he decided to call it quits. So goes one of the greatest tragedies in the storied history of underground rock; had they continued, there’s no telling what the band would have been capable of. Except it isn’t the end of the story. Not exactly.

The Horrible Truth About Burma (Definitive Edition CD & DVD)
(Ace Of Hearts/Matador)

The first posthumous album that Burma released was the most conventional thing the band ever did: a live album commemorating Mission of Burma’s final tour. That’s what bands tend to do when there is no material forthcoming—it’s a way to give it one more kick at the proverbial cat—and so that’s what Mission of Burma did too; except that even when attempting to bow to convention, they came up with something unique and exceptional.

Culling songs from the band’s performances in New York, Boston, Chicago and Detroit, The Horrible Truth About Burma offers a series of songs that the band didn’t (at least initially) release studio versions of, but those here are about as close as one could hope for. The live treatments of songs including “Peking Spring," “Trem Two," “Tremolo” and “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver" vibrate with nervous energy and the abandon that comes with a band knowing that its time is short and it has yet to deliver the performance that the band’s members regard as perfect.

Instantly noticeable about this record is that the production and sound quality of it is miles beyond that of any live album released in the same time period and would also be considered an enviable effort even if it was released last Tuesday. The warm, even and well-equalized mix almost bears the sound of a vinyl release over the “instantly anthemic” but usually high-end-heavy sound of current live documents. That fact becomes even more admirable when one considers that it was recorded to tape on a Crown two-track machine. High-end live sound capture was still in its infancy—particularly in the needs-first underground environment of the 1980s—which makes the album all the more valuable; the additional attention to craft and workmanship of the physical product is something that any audiophile can respect.

In this context too, for those that never saw the band live, it was always questionable how Martin Swope’s tape manipulations and loops would translate before a live audience and factor into the group’s sound, but here it becomes apparent: Swope was instrumental in expanding the scope of Mission of Burma’s into a whole other plain live—his sounds and creations could let them sound as if they were playing at the lip of the Grand Canyon, in outer space or in a padded room; he was the member that aided the third dimension to Mission of Burma’s sound.

The proof of that comes on the DVD portion of this re-release that details the late show counterpart to the one on the re-release of Vs.

While the early show was certainly an energetic one, the late performance isn’t in the same ballpark nor is it in the same league—it isn’t even the same sport. Miller sets the tone right off with a version of “This Is Not a Photograph” that sounds like an exercise in scream therapy that carries right into Martin Swope’s delirious tape-loop showcase “Peking Spring." And there are no poor moments from there either—the band could not have hoped to end on a higher point at that juncture and it’s a fantastic way to round out this series of re-issues.

At that point with the band in shambles, there was no chance in any fan’s mind that the band was ever coming back—they weren’t on life support, they weren’t on hiatus, due to reasonable and understandable health concerns, they were gone. Game over. But they weren’t.


…And then, 22 years since the band’s self-imposed exile, the band reappeared. Skepticism abounded about the fitness to perform of the band’s members and in their absence, a lot of musical ground had not only been covered, it had also been retread. Even so, no one has ever managed to come close to this—the most sonically inventive band to traipse out of the 80s-era American underground and that still says something. By the time of ONoffON’s appearance, their presence had manifested everywhere; MoB’s sound had been pinched endlessly (R.E.M. covered “Academy Fight Song," Pearl Jam lifted Vs. for their second album title, Sonic Youth couldn’t have existed without them) and then they resurfaced and left them all miles behind, scratching their heads again.

What continues to set Mission of Burma apart even now is the fact that they’ve always been able to inject melody into their often-jarring rhythms and ONoffON finds the band mining familiar territory in that regard. The instrumentation is dark and dense — like a difficult ocean — but always riding the crest of the tidal wave is a delicate melody that is often the only thing holding the underlying madness together. All three of the remaining members (tape manipulator Martin Swope opted to enjoy musical retirement and has been replaced here with Bob Weston) contributed music to ONoffON, but unlike other bands with three songwriters, the record is consistent and solid throughout and even the addition of sweet-voiced ex-Throwing Muses starlet Tanya Donnelly does not break the mood as the band sears through time-worn salvos like “Falling,” “Wounded World” and “What We Really Were”—kicking over fresh musical dissonance to map along the way. Even 22 years after they called it quits, nothing about ONoffON sounds forced (and if so, not in a bad way—the band has always been at their best when they’ve seemed uncomfortable) or dishonest. In that way, the masochistic nature that always made the band so strangely cathartic is firmly in place and finds MoB delivering another great record. At the time, whether anyone heard it was the single thing that people wondered about most—but those that did here it won every ear they touched again.

The Obliterati

For over 25 years, Mission of Burma has occupied the enviable position as the ultimate thinking man’s indie rock band and, while that’s never translated into mass acclaim, for those that find them, MoB has never disappointed in consistently delivering crushing anthem after anthem. A change may be in the air for Mission of Burma, however, with The Obliterati as a combination of popular taste and the best batch of songs that the band has ever penned seem to have aligned. While tunes like “Donna Sumeria," “2wice” and “Man in Decline” will satiate the 80s college rock faithful, “Let Yourself Go” and “13” bear marks of Despistado-esque math rock and there are enough peels of distortion and martial rhythms in “1001 Pleasant Dreams” and “Good, Not Great” to show Yeah Yeah Yeahs and their fans how its actually done. Featuring writing contributions by all three members in this case is a non sequitur as the record retains its focus and doesn’t sound scattered; the pummeling guitars and drums melding with the slinking bass remains the constant rather than any player writing for their instrument in particular. While ONoffON may have sounded Mission of Burma’s return after-a-decade-plus absence, the record was really all about re-establishing their name. However, The Obliterati is where the band ups the stakes, don’t rely on their reputation, and produces the absolute best long-playing album in their history; resetting the bar for all other bands who would call themselves Mission of Burma’s peers.
The Sound, The Speed, The Light

Because it's been happening so much over the last few years, it has become reasonable to assume that it's easy for a band to reconvene or stage a comeback. How couldn't it be? The groundwork, name and mythos for the band has already been laid, it's just a matter of the band coming back and collecting on the dues they paid already right? Wrong. Unless the plan is to simply come back and capitalize on nostalgia, having a history can hurt a band as much as help it. Because they seem to do so in near perpetuity, it's a safe bet that music tastes, styles, approaches to composition, ideas and technology have changed since the band in question's heyday and coming back as if they've just been thawed from suspended animation isn't much of an option because whatever the band does will be viewed as anachronistic. It's a frustrating catch twenty-two; in addition to facing the same fickle public and creative pitfalls that all groups experience, the reconstituted or reconvened band has the hurdle of not not being able to make music exactly as they had before but not abandoning the persona or process that won them fans the first time either.

In Mission Of Burma's case, the perils of coming back as they did with ONoffON after twenty-one years away, were numerous and pretty clear: because they were an indie band when the term still meant operating independently, the band would have to join the ranks of the great unwashed and and fight for a place in pop beyond being the private pleasure of the band's diminished devout true believers (which may have numbered in the hundreds). As well, the otherworldly sounds created for the band by sound scientist Martin Swope had reached a vintage maturity and, because others had picked up on them, weren't all that unique anymore.

Worse, Swope had not returned to the band; happily Shellac bassist/lauded producer and engineer Bob Weston eagerly agreed to fill in.

The first couple of releases back (2004's ONoffON and The Obliterati, released in 2006) were respectable efforts  that found Mission Of Burma recapturing their power ably, but the band's history repeated itself; as was the case in 1983, Mission Of Burma remained the private pleasure of a select group of aficionados. It wasn't the most heartening of returns, but everyone just stayed positive and maintained that any reception at all was better than none.

These words have been uttered before, but now might be a better time for Mission Of Burma. Now – as the music business contemplates the possibility of its own collapse and big, established names like Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead and Pearl Jam abandon their major label homes in favor of the comfortable climes of the indie(ish) nation and reconnect with their roots, fans are following them underground and thus rediscovering the soil there.That's where they'll find Mission Of Burma waiting and, as luck would have it, the band even has the best, strongest and most original album they've released since Vs. ready to show in the form of The Sound The Speed The Light.

TSTSTL represents the point at which Mission Of Burma proves they're ready to move forward  and they do just that from the opening surge of “1, 2, 3, Party!!!,” the first genuinely irony-free party anthem Mission Of Burma has ever released. Combining the sidewinding and angular (but certainly not gaunt) guitars, only passably melodic vocals and staggering beats that have always been integral to the band's sound  with more pumping and propulsive bass, Mission Of Burma smashes forth with a wild abandon the band has only hinted at before in their 31-year history. Here, they don't hold back for a second and just dig in to the ominous vibes they're conjuring, don't try to reserve anything and, with Weston manipulating a maelstrom of malicious barbs, sinks a hook the size of a fisherman's gaffe into listeners; in this moment, Mission Of Burma snaps listeners to attention and holds them in that perilous stance.

With that tone set, the band freezes listeners just there and proceeds to knock out the finest form of succinct and caustic, but instantly memorable and pop-identified rockers the band has ever collected into one place. Songs including “Blunder,” “SSL 83” and “So Fuck It” all spill red hot nails behind them to catch listeners and drag them through a toxic wasteland that isn't dark and isn't angry so much as it is a tenuous straddling act between catharsis and dismissal; it's as if the band will only give to a point before they simply give up on listeners and play for themselves and it's in those moments that the band shines all the brighter. The emotional distance between “Possession” and “Forget Yourself,” between “One Day We Will Live There” and “So Fuck It” illustrates the ground rules for how singer/guitarist Roger Miller offers and rescinds his feelings throughout the run-time of The Sound The Speed The Light and every step of the way, bassist Clint Conley and drummer Peter Prescott are right there in step with him; the band embraces listeners and burns them, cuts them and caresses them and, each time the final word is Weston's as his ghostly manipulated rejoinders trail off at each track's close to make sure that listeners don't miss the final point. It's not a welcoming endeavor at all and the band seems to go out of its way to violently put listeners off, but that only makes them want to stick even closer to see what happens next; virtually from note one contrary behavior begets contrary behavior and the effect here turns out to be a very rewarding experience.

Will people finally clue in to that? The easiest answer is a solid maybe – given the tenor of events outside of everyone's control, listeners are once against turning their attention to music that exists outside of the most popular channels and that fact at least leaves the possibility that Mission Of Burma will finally get the popular notice they so dearly deserve very open. There are no guarantees but, at least with The Sound The Speed The Light, Mission Of Burma have made it that much easier to understand where the fuel came from if they do indeed explode.

Mission of Burma Definitive Editions are out now on Matador Records.

+ “Max Ernst” from Signals, Calls and Marches – [mp3]
+ "Weatherbox (Live)" from The Horrible Truth About Burma – [mp3]

More on Mission of Burma here:

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