Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Mission of Burma "Unsound" album review

Fire records seem to be signing great bands who used to be on Matador: Bardo Pond, Bailter Space and Mission of Burma. If you've never heard Mission of Burma before then this album probably isn't the best place to start. Have a listen to ‘That's When I Reach fo My Revolver’ from their debut album (or is it?) ‘Signals, Calls and Marches.' If you like that you'll like this as they have never really flagged on quality on any of their albums, however this one is a little different in that they've experimented a little with their sound. My only negative criticism is that at thirty-five minutes I could do with a bit more Burma. I guess I could just dig out my double vinyl 'Let There Be Burma' album (on Taang!) and listen to it for the millionth time to reaffirm that it actually exists. This album, released during their long hiatus is as good as any of their others and seems to be perpetually ignored by those who count albums; 'Unsound’ is described as their fifth studio album in the press release. Presumably they haven't counted 'Signals, Calls and Marches' as it was originally only six songs (but is now expanded to ten on remastered CD). They definitely haven't counted 'Let There Be Burma' which seems to get written out of history music journalists and press releases alike due to the crime of being mostly songs not released until after Mission of Burma spilt in 1983. I think the band might not be happy with the recordings which are purported to be demos, but they sound just fine to me. It's a shame as it includes some of their best songs, some of which also appeared on the live album 'The Horrible Truth About Burma' which I'd choose as my favourite from their first life (1979-83).

Partly inspired by hearing how vital Wire sounded third time around, Mission of Burma kicked into a second life which was perhaps more unexpected than any other contemporary bands on the US underground except Black Flag or Husker Du. Unlike those bands it wasn't animosity that led to dissolution, but guitarist Roger Miller's shot hearing. He always wears industrial ear protectors when they play, and the first time I saw them at All Tomorrow's Parties they had perspex barriers around the drum kit to shield him from Peter Prescott's exuberant barrage.
If you’re going to reform a legendary band, it’s important to enhance the legacy and not despoil it by being worse. Mission of Burma’s gigs showed they still had the fire if Roger’s ears could avoid burnout, and their aptly titled 2004 album ‘ONoffON’ confirmed they were if anything in better shape than before. Perhaps not surprising as Peter Prescott and relentlessly drummed and hollered in the excellent Volcano Suns before switching to guitar for Kustomized whilst Roger Miller pursued numerous quieter, more experimental avenues. Bassist Clint Conley was relatively dormant until he formed his tuneful Consonant with members of The New Year not long before the urge to be Burma took hold again. This was a very good thing, as the chemistry between these three musicians ignites much more explosive reactions than any of their other musical forays.

If I was pushed to choose a favourite Mission of Burma studio album I’d go for their second reformation triumph ‘The Obliterati.’ Their fourth album second time around, ‘Unsound’ shuffles the cards and opens some new avenues to keep them excited, exciting and engaged. I’d be quite happy for them to endlessly repeat their winning formulae, but clearly this would bore them and inevitably feed back into a less exhilarating musical ride. Bob Weston of Shellac, Rachel’s and Volcano Suns stepped into mysterious fourth member Martin Swope’s shoes in recent times and also produced ‘Unsound.’ They hadn’t used trumpet before, and since Bob played that instrument for Rachel’s (RIP Jason Noble) it was easy for him to blow a little brass seamlessly into the mix. Roger Miller wrote a couple of songs on bass rather than six string guitar and the first concise number ‘Dust Devil’ (which has nothing to do with the Butthole Surfers song of the same name) grew from an acoustic guitar improvisation. They also seem to have used a lot more effects on the vocals; on ‘This is Hi-Fi’ Roger sounds as if he’s singing underwater! If lyrical themes emerge one could be obsolete and retro technology, at least this is suggested by song titles ‘This is Hi-Fi’, ‘Second Television’, ‘7’s’ (old seven inch singles?) and ‘ADD in Unison’ (suggests analog/digital but probably is actually meant to be attention defecit disorder). The lyrics are far from obvious and are very intriguing. What are ‘Sectionals in Mourning’? I guess I’ll have to ask Peter Prescott one day! A couple of songs also namecheck something none of us can do without, except John S. Hall, because he’s different like that: water. If there’s a pop hit it’s the fifth song ‘Second Television’ sung almost inevitably by Clint, with a chorus of shouting Peters never far away. How does he always manage to sound like at least three singers at the same time? That song has sensibly been offered as a free download by Fire records so who needs radio DJs? Now Peel is dead they are mere obsolete censors superceded by the ever expanding internet. No one could possibly sing the line “Crashing through the waves” with more appropriate vigour than Peter Prescott (on ‘Part the Sea’). By the penultimate tune he’s not only seeing “Things that cannot be” but trying to refute ‘What They Tell Me’ which seems to be something about little green men. Meanwhile Roger Miller fell into the water but didn’t see no signs and told no one goodbye (‘FellĂ H2O’). By the next song ‘ADD in Unison’ he is rescued from drowning just in time to get everything back to front and end with ‘Opener’ falling over himself to demand, “Forget what you know!” Forget what you read and get all of Mission of Burma’s albums, even the ones they pretend don’t exist! Just don’t call this their fifth studio album while I’m around.

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