Mission of Burma
By Peter Hepburn | 18 May 2004
We’re gonna start this review with a geography lesson. So, everyone look up from your monitors for a moment and focus in on that wall map. Just between India and Thailand is the state of Mynamar, also known as Burma (they gained their independence in 1947—anyone who can name the colonial power gets bonus points. Collect 500 bonus points and Scott will send you a CMG hat). Chances are if you’re reading a review at this site you already know the whole Mission of Burma back story, so the geography lesson will be something new. If you aren’t familiar with the history of the band then we will pretend not to know you at parties and, for right now, summarize that very history. In a single sentence. They were good in the early ’80s, broke up because of tinnitus (gingivitis of the ears, if you will), adored in the late ’90s/early ’00s, played a few reunion shows (which fuckin’ rocked), signed to Matador, and, before you know it, new album.
So now that we’re all up to speed perhaps it’s a good time to make it clear that my experience with Mission of Burma is rather limited. I love Signals, Calls and Marches, and I saw them play an almost three hour long double set this January at Irving Plaza, but I still haven’t heard Vs. To me this seems to be both a sad indicator of how lame I truly am and a chance to distance myself from the history of the band and perhaps view this album with a hint of fairness (an attribute that doesn’t really figure into any of my other reviews). So, how do I say this nicely? Fuck it, everyone else is busy claiming the rebirth of punk in these geezers.
Truth be told, OnoffOn is not worth the wait. Hell, it’s not worth a three year wait, much less the twenty years since their last studio album. And quite honestly, if this were coming from any other band, this probably would not be coming out on Matador and it probably would not be getting the sort of rave reviews that have been seen in the popular press and internet.
The songs lack continuity, energy, the brilliant tape manipulation of Martin Swope, and that all-important factor: originality. Nothing here explodes on the listener the way their early material did. Signals, Calls and Marches, an eight-song EP, has at least four songs that make you just wanna go nuts (THAT’S WHEN I REACH FOR MY REVOLVER)—nothing here has that effect. Sure, maybe they’re just maturing, growing up, expressing their disillusionment and the horrible pain of ringing in one’s ears. Perhaps, but maybe then the lyrics wouldn’t be such a complete waste of time. Three of the songs here are just old _Vs._-era material that didn’t make the album and now sound pointless and out of date.
This is not to say that there aren’t a few successes, just that those few aren’t nearly as captivating or numerous as we’ve come to expect. Both “Falling” and “What We Really Were” aim more toward rock than the simple repetitive punk shouting of “The Setup” or ‘The Enthusiast.” The latter two just sound horrible—they pulled it off in 1982, but in 2004 it sounds stale cause, oh right, a thousand other bands during Burma’s hiatus. Of course then there are songs, such as “Wounded World,” set firmly for 2004, even if the guitar lines are still copped from the early ‘90s.
That’s probably the real disappointment. Their old material still sounds fresh, innovative, and imaginative (most likely for the simple reason that it was), but OnoffOn just sounds repetitive, dull, and uninspired. There are so many bands out there doing punk, even classic punk, better than this. It’s a shame they couldn’t capture their stage energy on album; live they certainly still have what it takes (note: see them play if the opportunity presents itself, it’s worth it). For the meantime though, stick with the classics, and try to seek out the bands in the same position of relative obscurity Burma was in circa 1981. Those are the ones to listen to.