Friday, May 9, 2008

1170 words about the Mission of Burma LP reissues

NEWS FLASH: After finishing this up a few days ago, it was announced that Mission of Burma will be playing Philadelphia Friday 6/27 at the First Unitarian. The show will center around songs from their 1st two records "Signals Call and Marches" and "Vs." Tickets are on sale this Sunday 5/11. $18. I urge you to get one. I promise you won't regret it.

This may come across as an advertisement for the recent Mission of Burma LP reissues--- and maybe it is--- but it comes from the heart (the Ace of Hearts!) and I'm not getting a kickback for it. I have the urge to gush because the vinyl reissues of "Signals, Calls and Marches" "Vs." and "the Horrible Truth About Burma" have made me so happy recently. They look, sound, and feel great.

I never before had "real" copies of any of these albums, just faceless CDRs. But the full package experience has been so much more satisfying. I've been a big fan of vinyl since even before round physical mediums of music storage became obsolete. And these Burma records only increase my love.

So what makes these records so great? Well, first off, they're very satisfying musically. It's early 80s Bostonian post-punk. The songs are catchy and melodic, yet angular and threaded through by the tape loop experiments of off-stage member Martin Swope.
Swope took the sounds made by the guitar/bass/drums and voices of Roger Miller/Clint Conley /Peter Prescott, played around with them and spit them back into the mix as reconfigured textural elements.

You non-fans out there may already be familiar with what might be Burma's two most catchy anthemic songs-- "Academy Fight Song" and "That's When I Reach For My Revolver." Both are great angsty fist-in-the-air sing-a-longs.

The reissue packaging is also beautiful-- thick gatefold covers with booklets of present day interviews with the band and well-captioned pictures of the band in their heyday and pictures of original lyric sheets and equipment diagrams. And while the original releases were single records, they've all been rereleased with bonus tracks. And the bonus tracks are included on separate discs so preserved is the original flow of the albums (Ok "Signals..." is technically an EP.) And none of these bonus tracks is a sloucher either.

And the vinyl itself is heavvvy: 180 gram, maybe twice the weight of a "regular" LP. This heavy, high-quality vinyl is not only less prone to warping, it also also makes the music grooved on it seem more substantial since the medium is so weighty. Listening to these records there's a bit of synesthesia. The packaging and black plastic seem to merge with the sounds so it all seems to be coming at you through the speakers. You can't get this feeling from an mp3.

Admittedly vinyl is an inconvenient medium when moving about. But that's OK. These Burma LPs come with a free mp3 download of the whole album, so you get the best of both worlds. And that's good for me right NOW. While writing this, I'm sitting with headphones and a laptop in a coffee shop where I can't very well be spinning my 180 gram vinyl beauties.

And along with the bonus tracks and mp3s you get a live DVD with each set. And most of this video footage has never before been released. The 1980 footage included shows the band looking sweaty and nerdy, with their fans equally sweaty and nerdy. The 1979 footage is a bit botched by over-ly "arty" effects and twitchy angle shifts, but at least it sounds good. The '83 footage that fills 2 of the 3 DVDs covers both their final Boston shows. At these they look a bit cooler and more sure of themselves. But Roger Miller still looks pretty nerdy wearing rifle range ear protectors to try to keep his band-ending tinnitus from getting worse.

In this '83 footage, the Boston fans seem a bit confused by the band. Even this home town crowd didn't seem as if it really knew what to make of the group--- not quite punk, but shouty and aggressive, incorporating tape loops yet not wholly "experimental" because there are verses and choruses and plenty of melody. Their music falls into the very broad category of "indie rock" (which was just then emerging in the early 80s)--- but I guess the band was ahead of their time. For the Boston late show (21+) the front row just bobs their heads. There's not much visible singing along or enraptured audience gestures and only one or two stage dives.

This was the home coming show on their LAST TOUR (until the 2002 reformation) and the crowd knew this. Yet no one seems to lose their shit.

In the coming years, people would come to realize the greatness of Burma but "you don't know what you got til it's gone." We've now had 25 years to digest, study, and appreciate what Burma 1.0 left us. And if you could send some early 00s indie fans back in a time machine to Boston '83 they'd certainly lose their shit, sweatily singing along to every word....well at least I would.

And thankfully us early oh-oh-ers again have an opportunity to lose our shit and sweatily sing along. For the last five years, Mission of Burma has been back together with the nearly original line-up (the revered Bob Weston replaced Martin Swope on the loops) and the original energy and inspiration have been retained. They've released 2 more great albums, on par with the 80s material and can still put on a great show. It's inspiring that 50 year olds can perform new and old tunes that do justice to a legacy started nearly 30 years ago.

And if you want proof, here's a well recorded 2007 show that you can stream or download:
Mission of Burma in Atlanta, January 13th, 2007

And for two nights next month in NYC on the band will be present the whole Signals, Calls, and Marches EP (6/14) and Vs. (6/15) so you can almost build a successful time machine to the early 1980s

I'll be in NYC on June 15th, but unfortunately, I've already got tickets to see the equally amazing (yet totally different) time warp of Iron Maiden at Madison Square Garden. Oh Lord why must I have to choose?

But back to 1983 and the issue of the original Burma fans NOT losing their shit: the band really didn't do too much outreach to get the fans riled up. There was no "we'll miss you, thanks for 4 years!" speeches. There's very little stage banter at all at these shows. But the band plays really well. And it seems just the music itself should've been enough to whip the kids into a frenzy.

A frenzy gets whipped up and frothy at the early, all-ages show. There are kids stage diving during every song. But the frenzy seems arbitrary. It seems disconnected from the music onstage. I get the feeling the kids heard there was a punk show at the Bradford and just came out to stage dive with no knowledge of who the band was.
This clip exemplifies the disconnection:

" Trem Two" is a slower tempo song that's melancholy in mood and probably the least likely candidate in the set for stage diving. And yet the kids end up on the stage in full-force and end up sort of awkwardly slow-dancing in front of the band.

And when "Peking Spring" gets kicked out, the kids don't seem to go nearly as nuts as they should if they were really up on Burma's music. To my ears, this song is a perfect synthesis of punk energy and singable melody. In all fairness, the song remained unreleased until after Burma's first demise. But still, there's a great groove-filled "woah-oh" section that is just calling out for a good old mosh and sing-along. And yet the audience isn't visibly moved.

I'm fully in support of people dancing around and knocking into each other when they "feel it." I'm certainly one to lose my shit and spin around crazily when I fall inside the music I love. But I also agree with Ian MacKaye of Fugazi and I despise "violence disguised as dancing." And McKaye's early band definitely attracted a lot of aggressive dance (as the Minor Threat live video/DVD, also from 1983, shows)

though that DC dance and mosh seemed more of a community event. The kids seemed a lot more connected to the actual songs and there was plenty of singing along.

I get the feeling that all the stage diving at the Burma show was just a display of rebellious machismo. With the exception of one girl, it's all dudes doing the diving. Sweaty, often shirtless dudes too. These divers are not holy. They look and act like the people who arbitrarily moshed, kickboxed, and stage dove at shows during the era of my own punk/hardcore/emo show-going (1998-2002ish.) And I have a feeling that meat heads just like this are still spewing their testosterone at shows in 2008.

At the Burma all-ages Boston finale I only noticed one stage diver singing along. He steps to the mic and joins in for one chorus of 'Revolver." Oh well. The crowd kinda takes away from the music instead of adding to it. Roger just smirks away as the kids dive and dive. For a while the white-shirted staff tries to keep the kids under control. And at one point two cops come out and stand menacingly at the front of the stage for part of a song, providing unintentional donutty comedy. But eventually the authorities give up and give in. The stage monitors are just moved to the side to save them from the fray. And the kids dive on.

The clips that are posted online are from early in the show before the wide-spread stage-diving starts. Still, near the beginning of the clip below security practically rips the shirt off of a diver in flight and at the end of the clip you can see the crew removing some of the stage monitors in anticipation of a continuing onslaught. And in this segment you also get a fine "Red" with Swope-ian sound effects:

The awkward band-crowd dynamic makes the DVDs not wholly satisfying. But over half this footage has never been released previously. And each hour-long DVD comes as a BONUS to a full album's worth of audio. The camera angles are also very good (for the '83 footage) and it's an honest uncut document. (yes, I feel like a saleman here, but really, MoB isn't giving me a cent for any of this and I honestly think your life will be improved by the inclusion of these discs in your collection.)

Perhaps the reissues were just a money-grab for these aging Bostonians. But I get the feeling that a whole lot of care was put into these sets. The photos and layouts look great in glossy 12x12. Paging through the booklet while one of these records spins on your turntable (with the tone arm tracking set properly to 1.5 grams of course) you get quite a wonderful experience. You get a satisfying audio/visual package missing from a lot of today's albums and mp3 releases.

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