Have you kept up with Mission of Burma?

Did you know that they’ve released 4 (!) albums since their reunion in 2002? They’ve been a reformed band for 12 straight YEARS now. I only started to come to this realization on my way to The Spaceland Ballroom, a bar and music venue located in an odd warehouse parking lot in Hamden, CT. It’s a part of a cluster of venues including the all-ages Space venue and the Outer Space bar (which is actually linked to the Ballroom by a hallway). The Ballroom has seen other greats (Feelies, Built to Spill, Cibo Matto, to name a few) come through and play the intimate 300-capacity room. It’s pretty amazing for anyone living in Northampton, MA (i.e. myself) since the Ballroom’s closer than Boston and offers the chance to see a reputable band in a very upfront and honest light.

I’m in no way a hardcore Burma fan, but I do prize Signals, Calls, and Marches and Vs as classic punk/post-punk albums and influential on a large portion of the music I admire. I am proud that they are primarily a Boston-based band and I respect that they still hand-pick local acts to open for them wherever they go. I also am amazed that they reunited after almost 20 years to not re-tread their past but forge a continuing legacy. It’s rather heroic to rise again and move forward in this age where band reunions can often just be cash-grabs and nostalgia trips. Even with all of this praise, I am ultimately guilty of Not Keeping Up With Burma since they came back, save a 2008 show where they performed Signals.. in its entirety. Even then, I hadn’t caught up to Vs ; all I wanted was to hear “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” and “Academy Fight Song” and sing along. This time I came with an open mind and curiosity to see what Burma have been up to since I last checked in.

I caught some of drummer Peter Prescott’s Minibeast project, which saw him kraut-jamming with various musicians to various degrees of success. At some point I left to grab a beer from the Outer Space and when I came back it seemed that MA’s own psych masters Sunburned Hand of the Man had materialized onto the stage. What followed was a series of jams that channeled Can, Silver Apples, and the Velvets effectively. By the last jam, chaos had ensued on stage with dual screaming vocalists and a cacophony of noise.

SO. What’s Burma up to these days? For one thing, guitarist Roger Miller has absorbed more of his classic rock upbringing into his Burma noise-making, adopting a wah pedal in addition to his 2 giant fuzz boxes and tremolo pedal. I heard a slew of songs I hadn’t before and many of them took detours into noisy psychedelic territory. Miller bursted out with violent, fractured solos, painting himself as a deranged Jimmy Page or (perhaps more aptly) Hendrix. The tones and vibes were certainly informed by 60s and 70s guitar rock, but the snaky songcraft and insistence on a noisy aesthetic were classic Burma. A few times, Miller looked out from under his striking wise-owl eyebrows and gave a maniacal grin. Bassist Clint Conley spat out his vocal parts with undeniable aggression and passion, cementing the belief that these guys did this for themselves above all else. I also understood how inventive and expressive Conley’s playing is in shaping and guiding the emotion of one song to the next. Drummer Prescott was both loose and assertive, and he gave the smartly-written songs a raw and slightly haphazard framework. His Hausu shirt, depicting the face of a demonic cat, reflected his explosive and energetic performance. Burma truly embody the ‘power trio’ dynamic, creating a fully realized and balanced sonic kingdom where every nuance has a purpose.

(c) Greg Scranton

When they delved into the songs that I did know – “This Is Not a Photograph,” “Red,” “That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate,” “Trem Two,” to name a few – they did so with vigor and precision while still maintaining the chaos that they so effectively reign in. Bob Weston, of Volcano Suns and Shellac notoriety, was behind the vocal manipulations first famously employed by Martin Swope in Burma’s first life. Weston’s efforts brought back to life the ‘phantom overtones’ of Burma legend, and I was transported outside of my body within the cacophony of their most vicious noise forays. In an instant or built up over an entire song, Burma succeeded in transcending the reductive confines of a typical rock or punk show. I knew that I was in the company of true artists devoted to exploration. Simultaneously, I was bombarded with haunting melodies, epic climaxes, and cathartic anthems all seemingly poised at the edge of collapse. “Academy Fight Song” blew open the crowd’s mostly reserved demeanor, and me and a small group of fans up front sang along. The goosebumps are returning as I remember that shining moment. Strangely absent was “Revolver” (much to the disappointment of my friends), but I didn’t really give it a second thought. I was happy to have experienced Burma in a completely different way. Instead of getting what I ‘wanted’, I was enlightened.

After the set, I found Miller at the merch table and bought a copy of an ambient noise LP he made with his brother in 2012. He was covered in sweat and spaced out, a signifier of being truly lost in the moment of a performance and suddenly brought back down to earth. I certainly know the feeling, and I instantly saw before me both a living legend, sonic explorer, and working artist. I understand why people compare my band to Burma and I can only hope that I’m as dedicated in my coming years to my craft as these guys still are.

So there are some lessons here, I guess: a) don’t presume you know why a band is reuniting, b) don’t assume that a band reuniting can never ‘recapture’ what made them magical, and c) sometimes coming into something with no expectations can be extremely fulfilling. Mission of Burma are still here and they are still every bit as dynamic, explosive, and committed to their vision as ever. Anyone invested in the continuum of punk, post-punk, and rock music should see what they’re up to. DON’T SLEEP ON IT.


All photographs are (c) 2014 Greg Scranton

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