The seminal Boston post-punk band Mission of Burma is back in force, and there is no better time to enjoy the perfect remastered editions of their initial Ace of Hearts output, with live DVDs to boot. Burma Rules!
If the heights of post-punk bands were measured on a doorframe in pencil the same way many families do with their children’s growth, you would find yourself craning your neck to look up to Mission of Burma’s mark circa 1983. Their music blended a sense of artiness and skewed structure with sheer volume that made them an infamous live act. Unfortunately, this volume had its consequences, and the band was forced to break up in 1983 due to guitarist Roger Miller’s tinnitus (an inner ear affliction that manifests itself in constant ringing and pain). Despite Miller risking decreased hearing, Burma have more recently reformed (with Shellac’s Bob Weston taking on Martin Swope’s role as tape looper) and released two amazingly strong albums, 2003’s OnoffON and 2006’s Obliterati.
The 19-year chasm between their two incarnations could leave some listeners behind, while new fans may not be familiar with their back catalog (though given the band's enduring reputation it's unlikely). To tie the present back to the past, Matador has taken over for original Boston label Ace of Hearts and issued remasters of Mission of Burma’s first EP, Signals, Calls, and Marches, their only full length with the original lineup, Vs., and live album The Horrible Truth About Burma, recorded during their final ’83 tour, along with a live DVD for each release. These studio recordings are essential listening for fans of independent music, and the live documents display Burma’s ability to errupt into a searing punk act while maintaining the integrity and subtlety of the songwriting.
Like fellow Boston natives the Pixies, Mission of Burma seemed to have their sound perfected right out of the gate. Perhaps this is due to bassist Clint Conley and Miller having previously played in the band Moving Units together, establishing a solid working relationship and a unique guitar-bass tandem attack. “Academy Fight Song” was the band's first single, backed with “Max Ernst”, both of which are Burma classics (the former one of the greatest of punk anthems) and indicative of their relative songwriters’ styles. Conley’s “Academy” is a hooky, bass-heavy ode to boarding school rebellion featuring a classic structure, including a pre-chorus and a B section. Though they initially disliked producer and Ace of Hearts label owner Rick Harte’s glossier take on their live sound, the band came to recognize “Academy Fight Song” as a perfectly balanced mix of overdubs, with even an acoustic guitar deep in the mix. Roger Miller’s “Max Ernst” is a monument of art-punk, a tight knot of instrumental complexity and Dadaist lyrics that one can hear bands like ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead attempting to untie in their work. This single is appended to the beginning of the Signals, Calls and Marches EP along with two excellent unreleased 1980 recordings, “Devotion” and “Execution”, for chronological effect.
The EP proper has a more stripped-down production, though as Harte points out in the liner notes, it features a defined low end which is only enhanced by the reissue: “Even good records by good bands, bands that we really loved (had very little low end). The Buzzcocks. The first Clash album was very, very thin. I loved the music, but wondered why they didn't have more low end on them. It became an obsession.” Peter Prescott’s pulsing, enthusiastically varied drumming underpins each song, allowing for the bass and guitar to swim around each other above as equally melodic instruments. This is rarely more apparent than on Mission of Burma’s most popular song, Conley’s “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver”, which features one of punk’s greatest bass solos. Miller contributes a run of four tunes, the highlight of which is “Fame and Fortune”, a damning, anti-materialistic rocker with an intertwining vocal breakdown at its center. It's often difficult to pinpoint Martin Swope’s contribution to the band in the studio as tape looper, though it comes to the fore in “Red”, as it closes with a processed loop of a Miller vocal hook. Instrumental closer “All World Cowboy Romance” is a blueprint for the extended interludes featured in Sonic Youth’s work, among countless other imitators. Overall, Signals, Calls and Marches is the reissue to get for those uninitiated into Burma’s world -- if “Academy Fight Song” doesn’t grab you right off the bat, you probably don’t like this kind of music.
Mission of Burma’s dynamic studio work demonstrates their ability to strike different emotional chords, from mildly stern to furious. As a live band, everything is kicked up a notch in intensity and volume, which is of course the correct thing to do. The Horrible Truth About Burma was recorded during their final 1983 tour, and features many songs that were going to be recorded for their second full-length album (only four of its 14 tracks appear in officially released studio form). You aren’t getting a recording on the level of Stop Making Sense here, but while it can be muddy at times, you certainly get an idea of what this band was capable of on stage. “Peking Spring” and “Dirt” are two Conley numbers that rank with Burma’s catchiest, and the performances accentuate the hooks rather than diminish them. The band gets to show its influences with covers of the Stooges' “1970” and Pere Ubu’s “Heart of Darkness”, a nine-minute freakout that was apparently “by request”. They even do justice to “Trem Two” and “Weatherbox”, the ability to replicate those studio tracks indicating that the recorded versions of the unreleased songs heard here would not have differed too greatly from their live counterparts, but would have merely been crystallized by Rick Harte’s production. Horrible Truth is a welcome addition to any fan’s Mission of Burma collection, but it would really only be appetizing to someone filled-in by their studio work.
With music this full of energy, it helps to have a visual counterpart to take some of the pressure off of your ears and shift it onto your eyes. Matador is bundling each of these releases with a live DVD each, and for the most part they deliver the goods. The early and late sets at the Bradford Hotel get their own discs, and they differ far more than you would imagine (though they share similar VHS-level quality). The young-uns all showed up early to party, and there are young punks dancing on stage and jumping into the crowd throughout the set. Burma takes all of this in stride, even as the pigs show up to settle it down and a pig-pile separates Conley and Miller for the final songs. The late set, on the other hand, feels more like a performance, with the crowd and the band staying in their relative positions. The band seems to put a bit more into it, maybe due to the witching hour, or because they suspect that they are the entertainment rather than getting pushed around by strangers. In both instances you get to see Roger Miller playing in his signature shooting range earmuffs for protection, an iconic image of the band’s unflinching drive for expression.
The third DVD, a crosscutting of two earlier sets at the Space and the Underground in Massachusetts, offers more interesting cinematography (if I may call it that) with better quality, though it misses out on providing a cohesive performance. Each of these bonus discs offer a different live portrait of the band, the “Horrible Truth” about Burma being that they were a patchy live band. Going by what I see here, they seem pretty good to me!
Simply put, Mission of Burma is one of the best, most influential rock bands of the past 30 years. Their brief run from 1980 to 1983 left a small, though staggeringly original body of work that has stood up as well as anything from that era. Rick Harte’s reissues of their Ace of Hearts output should help to bridge the gap between their two incarnations, as well as boost their recognition among a new generation of listeners. Perhaps due to the subtlety of their sound and its artfulness, Mission of Burma are not as obvious a touchstone as bands like Joy Division or Gang of Four, who had incredibly distinctive signatures. Yet the more you listen to Signals, Calls and Marches and Vs., the more you hear the echoes of their influence on countless bands. Fortunately, once you find out you’ve been missing out on your favorite band since ‘83, you can go see them live and anticipate their next studio album: Burma is back, and as good as ever.