Mission of Burma - Learn How: The Essential Mission of Burma - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Mission of Burma - Learn How: The Essential Mission of Burma

by Daryl Worthington Rating:8 Release Date:2012-12-03

The history of Mission of Burma can be split into two eras. Formed in 1979, the band released one album and an EP before breaking up. After reforming in the early 2000s, they have released a further four albums and toured extensively. It's quite refreshing for a band to reform and continue their creative output, and this is reflected in this collection, with disc one being made up of tracks from the first era, and disc two material from after their reformation.

Musically, Mission of Burma inhabit a space somewhere between the anthemic hardcore of Husker Du and the punk rock experimentalism of Sonic Youth. Chronologically, they existed alongside Minutemen, Gang of Four and Black Flag, post-punk groups formed after the initial punk explosion who aimed to keep the subversive ethos of punk but break the formulaic shackles many of its earliest proponents had been consumed by.

For instance, 'Einstein's Day', from their debut album Vs, begins with droning bass notes and distorted guitar arpeggios before its anguished chorus. The song the breaks into an almost stream of consciousness instrumental section, meandering through squealing guitar flourishes and an unpredictable structure. It doesn't seem to end as much as just full apart.

One of the key elements of Mission of Burma's music both in their first incarnation and now is their experimentation with texture and structure and how these are performed concisely within the constraints of short, anthemic hardcore songs. 'That's When I Reach for My Revolver', perhaps their most recognised song, breaks into an instrumental section after its second rabble-rousing chorus. However, whereas one might expect a traditional guitar break in this section (fitting with pop/rock tradition), the song instead falls into loose rhythms and a wandering bass melody. It's a subtle change on the traditional formula, but shows that even at their most poppy, Mission of Burma always incorporate something slightly unusual.

Mission of Burma's dedication to unusual textures was shown by their 'fourth member' Martin Swope (who has been replaced by Shellac's Bob Weston since their reformation). Uniquely for a band of this era and genre, Swope didn't appear on stage but instead at the sound-desk, taping and processing the sounds coming from the group and replaying them over the band as they performed. (Anyone who has seen them live will have noticed the strange vocal loops, or abstracted guitar lines that aren't coming from the three people on stage.)

This experimental spirit is reflected in their recorded output, on 'Academy Fight Song' for instance, one can hear strangely eerie guitar textures that float in and out of the mix and provide a chaotic contrast to the songs regimented arrangement. This is continued on their recent output as well. For example '1,2,3, Party' Is built over a loop of somebody counting from one to three. The whole thing is integrated so that the spoken counting becomes a rhythmic device in its own right.

One of the most refreshing realisations from having all eras of the band's catalogue together is that they have maintained their ferocious energy, and with the more modern production of the newer tracks, this is allowed to cut through with greater clarity. Songs such as '2wice' and 'Let Yourself Ago' have maintained the same abrasive ferocity and feeling of organised chaos of their early material. The original break-up of the band was forced by the debilitating tinnitus of guitarist Roger Miller. One gets the impression when listening to this compilation that the reformation was far from a cash-in, and more a case of making up for lost time and continuing seamlessly from the point where they were forced to stop.

This album doesn't have any exclusive tracks, and is therefore unlikely to have much appeal to anybody who already owns Mission of Burma's albums. However, for the uninitiated it shows that Mission of Burma are far from just a historical footnote in the development of post-punk, but a crucial and ambitious group of musicians still creating music of challenging relevance.

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