In 1979, Mission of Burma debuted the controlled blast of their calculated chaos to pogo-ers and punks of Boston and the world. Three decades later, the pogo may be gone, but Sunday nigh the post-punk originators got the Echo's sorta mopey audience swaying to their genre-defining brand of tightly wound rock.
Although Mission of Burma abandoned youth-angst long ago, the live show sacrifices none of the volume and intensity that solidified their place in the canon of rock legends. Alt-music nerds' gush-o-meters nearly sweat bolts of excitement when lavishing praise on their early 1980's works, but seeing MoB in action justifies nearly all the critical frothery.
The three Bostonians (with tape loop, sound artist, Martin Swopes) step on stage like any local band, playing on any stage across America. Guitarist Roger Miller's amp rests near the edge of the stage, transmitting jangling chords, and gritty, off kilter solos he wrestles from his guitar, pulling its body close to him like he was wrangling a lamb. Miller's opening chords of "This is Not a Photograph," mixed with Clint Conley's rolling bassline, and Peter Prescott's driving drumming, brought the crowd to a boil, and kept them percolating and singing along to the 28 year-old song.
The cut--from their 1981 debut EP, Signals, Calls, and Marches--is older than many audience members, but the dynamic post-punk anthem sounds as contemporary as anything today. Conley closed his eyes and wove the intricate basslines that deftly held the songs together and embellished the melodies coming from all angles. All three members sing, sometimes harmonizing, oftentimes leading call and response, but Conley keeps the outfit from breaking at the seams. After all, strong basslines were the hallmark of the post-punk sound (think Gang of Four or PiL), which reined in the all-out frenzy of punk and created a interlocked machine powered more by tension than release.
The guys, now in their fifties, leave behind the cool detachment of many younger bands who have gleaned the Mission of Burma Sound. Instead, they really have fun. They're relaxed, confident, and extremely polished. They don't look like dads, they look like uncles, who are always cooler than dads. They're the cool uncle who goes out to the porch during family gatherings, smokes and waxes nostalgic about catching the T-Rex last show ever. He will put out that cigarette, come inside and chat nonchalantly about family stuff, but secretly pines for those exalted days he revealed on the porch.
But unlike that anonymous uncle, Mission of Burma returned to their glory days after leaving it behind for nearly 20 years. Mission of Burma broke up in 1983, when Miller feared that his worsening tinnitus would leave him deaf. While they left rocking behind, their seminal (and only) full length album Vs.--yep, Pearl Jam borrowed the title for their sophomore album--gained notoriety first in 1980's college rock circles, which became 1990's indie rock crowds, which then became an oft-cited influence of turn of the millenium heavyweights. In 2002, MoB picked up their instruments and wrote three more albums of new material including The Sound The Speed The Light, this year.
As the guys run through, "Fuck it," an aggro-yet-restrained rocker from their newest album, they reveal an unique challenge. The band's best known material came from four years of activity, and one full-length, three decades ago. Since their reunion, they've released three albums and have toured for seven years. Their new material references their old, yet, still moves forward with the sound developed during the musical milleu of Joy Divion, Neu, and even the Modern Lovers. Can a band ride on their own coattails?
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Yet onstage, Mission of Burma doesn't seem to care. They're lost in the noisy breakdowns, the odd time signatures, and the glow of the crowd, who seem to cherish this rare opportunity. There was no better time to see them than now, with their slab of new and old songs blending together, like a cake with no slices, just a healthy helping of sonic deliciousness.
For some bands it's better to burn out than to fade away, but with Mission of Burma, it's always a pleasure when they light their flame again. And like they sing, "fame and fortune?/ fancy that/ nothing but rabbits coming out of a hat."