Perfect Sound Forever

From VS. to ONOffON in 22 Short Years

photo by Diane Bergamasco, from official MOB site

by Jay Hinman
(July 2004)

After observing a plethora of hard-earned reputations crash on the siren-filled rocks of misguided, ego-driven reunion tours, and finding myself laughing along with the well-deserved critical drubbings that ensued, I was more than a little surprised to learn that Mission Of Burma would tempt fate by following up their life-affirming 2002 reunion tour with an actual studio record of all-new material. Often these twenty-years-on reunion records also elicit nothing so much as a big fat UH OH, but given Burma's incredible live set that tour, which showed the band with their chops and their muscular reputation well intact, I figured I'd try and judge the band as if they were starting from square one.

And in a lot of ways, they are 2004's ONoffON will inevitably suffer if folks insist on comparing it straight-up to Vs., their 1982 masterpiece and their only previous full-length album, recorded at the peak of their powers and in a context very divorced from the realities of making self-directed rock music in the 21st Century. Not because it's a crappy reunion record (it isn't, far from it), but because follow-on US independent rock music history, some of it built upon Burma's love of challenging, angular pop noise, has changed fairly dramatically in the interim. But first, please allow a few words on Vs. to present a perspective on the record upon which Burma built the reputation that made this bold reunion a viable idea in the first place.

After a brief career of critical hosannas, limited but organically growing fandom and a few slathering posthumous tributes, Mission of Burma quickly became one of those "lost" post-punk bands whose original records became mighty hard to find. During much of the late '80's and early '90's, Vs. had lapsed out-of-print and was available only on the pin-up wall of gougers like Bleeker Bob's and their overpricing kin. Then, when the CD era emerged, so again did Vs., but only buried within a near-complete Rykodisc retrospective on the band, book-ended by other masterful material, yet lacking the stand-alone context and precise beginning/end that made listening to the LP straight from "Secrets" to "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate" such a revelation. Though the motives behind the "compleat" CD were certainly pure, it engendered the same sort of head-scratching puzzlement as the submerging of full-length Velvet Underground LP's between rough demos on that Peel Slowly and See box set. For fans who rightly saw those records as sacred pinnacles of rock music evolution, similar to how I personally view Vs., it didn't make a whole lot of sense. This was rectified in Mission of Burma's favor in 1997 when Ryko finally went whole-hog and gushed out the entire Burma catalog in deluxe CD packages, including a solo Vs., with original cover art intact.

The cover art's probably as good a place as any to attempt a lame metaphor to help describe the record's transcendent brilliance. See, the cover has this hard-steel fence stretching to all sides, very imposing and raw-looking, suggesting a certain tough discipline that is unyielding and angry. Yet poking through the fence are the new buds of some tenacious flower, standing for the light and rejuvenating purity of the universal and the natural. At least that's what the indie rock art professor told me. Mission of Burma on Vs. put up an exceptionally hard shell of dark noise and sonic squall borne of well-amped guitar, crashing drums and tape loops, while maintaining (particularly on softer tracks like the fantastic "Trem Two" and "Einstein's Day") a pop sensibility rooted in folk and general rock balladry.

Side Two has always been, for me, the side that keeps me coming back over and over. It starts with "Mica," a template song that, along with the much better-known "That's When I Reach for my Revolver," stands as perhaps the best tune the band ever wrote. "Mica" bleeds into the screeching and murky "Weatherbox," which is jammed to the gills with complementary loops and feedback, and also possesses a sunshiny sing-song interlude that's a jarring coda within a much more challenging song structure. "The Ballad of Johnny Burma" is a punk-infused scorcher with nods to '50's rock-n-roll in both lyrical and musical content, while the aforementioned "Einstein's Day" is a gently rolling, slow kettle burn of a plaintive pop song. "Fun World" is metallic repetition like a machine gone somewhat haywire, not at all "industrial" per se (this is a goddamn rock band through and through) but certainly winking at times in that direction. Finally, Side Two crashes to a close with the speedy rave-up "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate", an amazingly berserk and tight-ass punk rock song that could arguably be called, um, hardcore (the track even made it to some godawful hardcore punk retrospective CD whose name escapes me, along with lunkhead luminaries such as The Adolescents and 7 Seconds). Vs. sounds like no other record before or since as a result, and had enabled Mission of Burma to stand proudly alongside The Fall, The Flesh Eaters and perhaps the early Dream Syndicate as the valedictorians of the hallowed 1981-82 post-punk honor role.

So while it's tempting to do an apples-to-apples comparison now that the new one (ONoffON) is out, I think it's only fair to instead throw the thing in with its modern peers even the Burma-influenced ones rather than the Class of '82. In so doing, I'm fairly confident that this'll stand up as one of the best records 2004 has to offer. ONoffON is also chock-full of whining, tape-manipulated sound, all shoved and spindled into a very pleasing pop-based, structure-based rock and roll formula. The formula changes its visage on many occasions, and at times it's like no Mission of Burma song or record you've ever heard before (particularly the galloping, almost C&W "Nicotine Bomb," which is also one of the best on here). This is still one of the loudest bands on the planet, but given their god-given ability to still write great lopey, raucous hook-filled TUNES, they rarely come off as such (except for in the live setting, in which they are still l-o-u-d, earplug loud). Roger Miller's guitar still sounds like a whooshing Concorde screaming out of JFK, and because it's mixed into a bazillion different tracks on this record, the effect is generally pretty pummeling. His sound is "brighter" this time around, perhaps because of the bumped-up production, so anyone looking for the muddy murk of Vs. will have to keep looking. Of particular note are the Peter Prescott-yelped "Absent Mind", which reminds one of a drunken 2AM Volcano Suns encore (a good thing), and "Wounded World", a track I didn't cotton to at first when I slavishly downloaded it for free on the Matador "preview" site, but now think is a terrific veering-off into a different kind of post-punk aural complexity than I'd expected from the band.

And what about the three 1980's-penned tracks on here that made it out on those posthumous Taang records from the late '80's: "Dirt," "Playland" and "Hunt Again"? These three tracks have been re-recorded for ONoffON, and two actually best the original studio versions 20-something years later; only "Dirt" comes nowhere close to the jagged and raw angst of the original. But who's complaining, right? The thing's not without it's flaws, but the band is certainly hot and reinvigorated, and did something almost none of their 1979-83 peers could do, would do or have done: make a reunion record worth buying & playing repeatedly without breaking a huge sweat, and then backing that up with a live set that blows doors off of anything else I've seen in 2000-04. I'll take it.

Also see our Mission of Burma interview from 2012

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