Mission of Burma
Strongest album: Mission of Burma . This CD contains everything the band released in their lifetime.
Weakest album: See above.

Their slim ouvre hardly leads one to suspect that this was a major band, but they were - believe it. They broke up far too early, releasing only an a six-song EP, one full-length album, and a handful of singles during their lifetime. Most of this material is collected on the excellent Mission of Burma compilation; after the band's 1983 breakup, a couple of collections of outtakes and a live album were released posthumously. Nevertheless, the Mission of Burma's influence can be heard in hundreds of post-punk bands to this day. The missing link between late '70s punk and '80s indie rock, Burma came across as arty three-hundred-chorders, offering a loud and intense, but sophisticated, assualt on the senses. Their true originality was in just what overamped chords they employed to bring the noise; these guys had an unusual sense of tonality, to say the least, and a deceptively meandering sense of song structure. They never sounded like other punk bands of the time; while the likes of Minor Threat were hammering out a monochromatic blur, the Mission of Burma were experimenting with interesting textures that would seem quite painterly if not delivered at such ear-splitting volume. I mean that literally about the ear-splitting; guitarist and chief songwriter Roger Miller quit the band because he was losing his hearing (he performed their final tour in a helmet!). Their influence can be heard in '80s contemporaries Husker Du and Sonic Youth, and later upstarts Dinosaur Jr. and the Archers of Loaf - pretty good for a band that only left one brilliant EP and a weaker, but still good, LP.

Signals, Calls, and Marches EP (1981) ****1/2

This is where the Mission of Burma's reputation generally lies, and it's one intense whallop of an EP. All of the songs are sturdily melodic - almost poppy - and challenging at the same time, a rare and exciting combination. The warped child of Pere Ubu, the Gang of Four, Wire, and Television, the Mission of Burma contain echoes of all of the above but sound completely idiosyncratic, perhaps because they Americanize the abrasive post-punk sounds wafting across the Atlantic. Bassist Clint Conley writes the standout classic, the anthemic "That's When I Reach For My Revolver" (horribly covered a decade later by techno prodigy Moby). The rest of the songs don't quite catch up with that opener, which says more about how great "That's When I Reach For My Revolver" is than how weak the other songs are - because they aren't. "Outlaw" layers skittering rythms and declaimed vocals underneath a numblingly grinding Sabbath-y riff. The moody "Fame and Fortune" marches right into the speedy "This Is Not A Photograph", which gives way to the more melodic, driving power-poppy "Red". The EP ends with the instrumental "All World Cowboy Romance". The title is not ironic; these guys sound like they ditched West Point for rock'n'roll - they're uptight and pissed, their rhythmic pulse isn't made for dancing but marching, and the songwriting style appears to be some sort of fusion between catchy pop and ROTC chants.

Vs. (1982) *** (original grade); (new grade): ****

I've reevaluated this album lately, and upped it an entire star. Here's what I originally had to say about it:

A disappointing followup; the Mission of Burma have their sound down cold, and rock harder with more finesse, but the songwriting is nowhere near as consistent. Mostly this disc just grooves off Roger Miller's clanging web-of-guitar tone, and while his guitar does hold attention, I'd be lying if I didn't tell you I find quite a bit of this kind of boring. The melodies have dropped out of sight as the band attempts somewhat darker and more conceptual material, and for me this album doesn't really kick in until the halfway mark. "Ballad of Johnny Burma" is a twisted little tale from Miller, and bassist Clint Conley (the other major creative force) closes the album with the pent-up explosion of "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate". Conley is the stronger songwriter, but Miller dominates by penning over half of the material, to the Mission of Burma's loss - his material just isn't as throat-grabbing or catchy. I do like the lines "the Roman Empire never died/It just got replaced by the Catholic Church" - hey, these guys are from Boston: did they have a guilt-ridden Irish Catholic upbringing? It would explain a lot; certainly they don't seem like fun chaps to hang around with. Too bad the lyrics never make what drives their stiffly militaristic angst explicit.

New thoughts as of 2/06/99: I can't believe how much I underrated this album. I hold to my earlier position that the melodies are weak, if existent, but that's not the point of this music, anyway: the point is Roger Miller's twisted, abrasive, angular guitar work. A bit like the Television of the '80s, if you ask me (who I also initially underrated) - half the indie-rock bands playing the '90s underground sound like secondhand chips off of Burma's shave. "Trem Two" sounds like a Wire outtake, only more hypnotic, and while the songwriting does sag around the middle of this record, it picks up phenomenally near the end - there aren't many songs more magisterially cold than "Einstein's Day", or as snottily nihilistic as "The Ballad of Johnny Burma". They even save the very best song for last, "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate". I think the problem I had was that I heard this directly after the EP on the Mission of Burma CD, which is a terrific bargain but at 80 minutes seems to go on forever. So the next time I put the CD on, I skipped over the first 7 tracks and started listening to this album as a separate entity - and it was like hearing this music for the first time. It still gets a lower grade than the EP because the EP's more consistently great, and it doesn't have anything as powerful as "That's When I Reach For My Revolver" - my mistake was to underrate Vs. because it wasn't as good as Signals, Calls, and Marches, when in fact it's great in its own right.

The Horrible Truth About Burma (1985) ****

An overwhelming assualt on the inner ear that repeated exposure to raises the high probability of permanent damage (believe it - Roger Miller quit the band because of growing tinnitus), this unbelievably loud posthumous live release still has my bones vibrating after I've finished cranking it up to 11. It's live, so naturally the music lacks the polished, scientific precision of the studio versions, though the musicianship on display is expectedly top-notch - Burma were perhaps the greatest band ever to merge the conflicting strains of pissed-off garage punk and experimental art-rock professionalism. Like the Who at Leeds, this live release emphasizes the bone-crunching punk side of the band, with a devastating Stooges cover ("1970") and a nearly 9-minute excursion into a Pere Ubu tune ("Heart of Darkness") as touchstones. The handful of unreleased songs proves that Burma were good editors of their own work, though the previously unavailable songs rock hard despite compositional inadequacies. Excepting, of course, the brilliant "Peking Spring" which ranks among the finest of Chris Conley's compositions. My respect for this band keeps growing higher and higher, as their music has aged better and compells repeated listening more than most of their early '80s competition. Not as essential as the two studio releases, of course, but with their output being so small, any more is desperately needed manna from heaven.

Mission of Burma (1988) ****

At 80 minutes, this is one of the longest CDs in existence, and thankfully it has kept the Mission of Burma's music in circulation. This compiles the entirety of Signals, Calls, and Marches and Vs., adds the brilliant 1980 debut single "Academy Fight Song" (the greatest early '80s American punk single, hands down), the considerably more forgettable "Ok/No Way" single, a couple of outtakes, and two live tracks (Conley's "Go Fun Burn Man" and a cover of the Stooges' seminal "1970"). This disc is essential for anyone who's interested in the roots of American alternative rock or punk, and it's a great bargain to boot.

The Mission of Burma broke up in 1983, with Roger Miller forming the considerably quieter Birdsongs of the Mesozoic and occassionally releasing solo albums. Drummer Peter Prescott formed the Volcano Suns, who sounded a lot like the Mission of Burma, and Clint Conley dropped out of the music business. There are a couple more posthumous releases from the Mission of Burma that have recieved official release. Mission of Burma EP (released on Taang! and not to be confused with the Rykodisc CD) and Forget are collections of outtakes. Both collections of outtakes have been compiled on one 1990 CD, Let There Be Burma - take this and the Rykodisc Mission of Burma CD, and you've got the band's entire studio output. The above mentioned outtake compilations are quite difficult to track down (I've never seen them), though I'm on the lookout.

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