To put it simply, Mission Of Burma has been around for a long time. During the band’s sound check on Friday night at Bowery Ballroom, the house DJ plays the Ramones’ “Havana Affair.” As the tech guy sings every word, it puts in perspective that when the Burma bandmates first visited New York City in 1979, they were contemporaries of those punks from Queens. While most of the Ramones have passed, here is Mission Of Burma in 2013, ready to take the stage as loud and ferocious as ever. As the night would prove, the group’s jittery rhythms, pounding drums and disorienting tape manipulations still make for a brilliant sonic assault unlike many others.
The key emphasis is that they are indeed very, very loud. It’s that propensity for volume that, despite the success of debut album Vs., had the band calling it quits in 1983 when guitarist/singer Roger Miller’s tinnitus was being detrimentally affected by the loud nature of its live performances. That was until 2002, when an eager and rejuvenated Burma regrouped, positioning a collapsible Plexiglas wall in front of Peter Prescott’s drum set in Miller’s direction to control the noise.
Having released four albums since that return, including last year’s Unsound, the Boston post-punk legends have squashed the “reunion band” label and crafted an excellent second half to their career, comparable to Wire and Dinosaur Jr. On Friday, fans that surface are seeking a setlist that includes as much of The Obliterati as Signals, Calls And Marches. The guys are in their 50s, now but it’s only noticeable in their salt-and-peppered appearance and occasionally goofy banter. Meanwhile, the intensity and precision with which they handle themselves, as they do with Miller shouting full force on second song of the set, “Fell Into Water,” is indicative of a crew that’s full of youth.
Once again, to be clear, the defining aspect of a Mission Of Burma show is how unbelievably loud it gets. With Miller’s thick, distorted guitar, Clint Conley’s chunky basslines and belting vocals as well as the deep thud of each piece of Prescott’s kit, the noise is blaring from start to finish. Upon the thunderous conclusion of “Donna Sumeria,” Miller is dealing with some technical difficulties and sarcastically notes, “Apparently I’m hard on my foot pedals.” The reality is he’s been riding them as if they were indestructible in the midst of a distortion-drenched jam.
Misson Of Burma does well in curating a set to a sparse crowd. The song list evenly represents the band’s different albums, but there is an apparent lack of several classics. This is no reunion tour, and the band has the right to play the songs it views as best-suited for each evening. However, a quick look at Burma’s recent setlists indicates it is off-kilter for the band not to play songs like “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver,” “Trem Two” and “That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate.” But this may be a conscious decision in an effort to play as many songs as possible that capitalize on having Miller’s brother Benjamin present on saxophone, as they do on Friday night. It’s an appreciated novelty, and it makes tracks like “This Is Hi-Fi” and “Add In Unison” all the more fun.
One consummate favorite that makes the cut is “This Is Not A Photograph,” which ignites the crowd into a mosh pit halfway through the set and keeps on going until the show’s end. This is not a band clinging to nostalgia or continuing despite being completely out of touch. Mission Of Burma is just another band, touring its latest album and possessing a serious knack for disrupting your equilibrium with intense rhythm and noise.