The first time I listened to the nearly two-minute instrumental passage that opens "Secrets," the first track on Mission of Burma's seminal 1982 debut LP, Vs. (Ace of Hearts), I heard: the brisk, galloping rhythms of their Scottish contemporaries, Orange Juice; the jagged, unpredictable riffing of late-'90s/early '00s indie favorites the Dismemberment Plan; the abstract and guttural drumming of the current Brooklyn art-punk group the Liars; and the occasionally harsh, often beautiful wall of sound of relative newcomers Deerhunter.
Mission of Burma formed in Boston 30 years ago — the year Joy Division, Gang of Four, and the Pop Group released notorious post-punk releases in the UK, as the corresponding scene in the US was still relatively fractured (mostly thanks to our sprawling geography and the relatively localized, DIY ethos of the bands) — and disbanded in 1983, the year I was born. (In large part, the break-up was due to the crippling tinnitus Roger Miller incurred while touring frequently with the band.) What is now a considerable reputation was based on very little output: an EP, a couple of singles, and Vs. Their 2004 regrouping has, so far, resulted in two acclaimed albums — ONoffON and The Obliterati (both on Matador). I just got around to listening to all of this stuff a couple weeks ago, when I caught wind of their January 25 show at SPACE Gallery.
In retrospect, this sad lapse in a punk fan's musical education seems inexcusable, but the upside-down arc of Mission of Burma's career excuses it, to an extent. Until their happily prolonged reunion (the three original members, aged 50+, hold down steady jobs and families now, and play weekend gigs every few months), the Burma legacy was nearly relegated to mentions in any history of the '80s underground. It was bolstered by acts covering their material throughout the '80s and '90s, notably R.E.M. and Moby. With the early-decade, Pitchfork-spearheaded ascension of a new wave of acclaimed post-punk bands — your Liars, Interpols, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, etc. — Burma's influence and reputation were fully reignited, just as they decided to get back together.
What follows are some thoughts on the band's three full-length albums, from a guy schooled on their progeny, and more than a little humbled by his ignorance.
Mission of Burma traffic in noise, but they never dwell in it. This seems to be the secret of Vs.'s success. Take a relatively sparse, moody song like "Trem Two": Roger Miller's tall, foreboding guitar lick mingles with Peter Prescott's syncopated drumming and Clint Conley's murky, curdling bass. It is, on the surface, succinct and repetitive, but Martin Swope's tape loops and sonic manipulations (he's been replaced in the group's current incarnation by Shellac's Bob Weston) throw the rhythm just slightly off kilter. It's hypnotic and nearly disorienting, and by song's end the miasma has expanded, with both bass and guitar moving at breakneck pace and a shower of nails dropping on Prescott's cymbals. Vs. captures post-punk's most time-honored contradictions: it is simultaneously militant and sprawling, thoughtful and spontaneous, irreverent and anthemic, fleeting and essential.