Two Nights of Mission of Burma at The Bowery Ballroom

January 29th, 2010

Mission of Burma began in 1979, but existed for just four years before intense hearing damage to lead guitarist Roger Miller gave them no choice but to call it quits. They left behind a few singles, an EP and their seminal album—Vs., a legacy of visceral guitar—to secure their legendary status, with bands like Sonic Youth to Nirvana citing them as an important influence on their own sound. Mission of Burma eluded a lot of rock and punk classifications in their early incarnation, taking an abrasive and extremely loud approach to experimental post-punk rock. They had no allegiances to any scene, and they were considered too punk for the New Wavers but too experimental for the faster hardcore set.

The most surprising and distinctive element of Mission of Burma’s sound was Martin Swope’s tape manipulations. It’s hard to imagine the physical effort it took in the early ’80s to sample the band’s own sound as it was being played live to a reel-to-reel recorder and then fed back into amps. He was the wizard behind the curtain who literally never appeared onstage, which was unheard of for a rock band. But Mission of Burma was this kind of amazing contradiction of esoteric arty garage rock. They were at the post-punk frontier. Fast forward to 2010: It’s not news that Burma has reunited to perform their groundbreaking material again, but rather that this reunion has resulted in three new albums, ONoffON (2004), The Obliterati (2006) and The Sound the Speed the Light (2009), proving that the band’s early brilliance was no accident.

With the help of Bob Weston, indie-rock engineer extraordinaire, in Swope’s role, Mission of Burma’s new material has shown that rock life after 40 can be more than greatest-hits compilations and benefit shows—experience and wisdom can bring innovation. It’s why October 4th was recently declared Mission of Burma day in Boston. This unlikely feat of endurance is on display at The Bowery Ballroom this Friday and Saturday. It’s more than a comeback, and please don’t forget to bring your own firing-range ear protection. —Jason Dean

(“1,2,3, Party!!” is the first single off The Sound the Speed the Light.)