Monday, February 28, 2011

Gig: Mission of Burma

Mission of Burma (METZ / Hybrid Moments)

The Garrison. Sunday, October 24, 2010.

This Sunday night special was one of the "pop" presentations of The Music Gallery's fifth annual X AVANT Festival. It was also the night before the civic election, with most in attendance stuck somewhere between numb anticipation/dread and blank disbelief as to where the city would be finding itself a day later. Perhaps that might be considered a worthy state of mind to blast everything clean with some tuneful white noise guitar.

Setting the table for the night would be Hybrid Moments, the avant/improvisory guitar duo of Matt Vocabulary and Jonny Dovercourt. Given the nature of the beast, I was pretty sure I would be getting something different than when I saw 'em a few months back, and maybe it was just because they started off with a more subtle building sort of attack, but I got the sense here of the pair having a bit more structure in their "structured improvisations". This time, there was no drifting into Wipers covers or the like — though that may not be for lack of trying: "That was originally intended to be a cover of 'More Than a Feeling'", Dovercourt joked after one piece. "It didn't really work out." The second improvisation included some guitar that was distorted almost to the point of blippy-ness, with Matt V. shoving drumsticks into his guitar strings.

There was some crunchiness in the guitar tone, but there was space around what they were playing — they weren't filling the background with waves of distortion or anything. What they were doing here sounded a bit less fusty — or perhaps we should say more at ease — than that last time 'round, as well as less shred-y. The last one, along with a title ("The Pugilist") also had the most internal drive, but these were still generally abstract pieces.

There's room here for all sort of extra-musical musing. Like, for example, if this were two guys with saxophones, it would seem more immediately okay to appreciate the idea of structured improvisations with less baggage of "jamming" than guitars have. There are a few layers like that that you have to grapple with — or just straight-up ignore — before you even get to the music.

The first piece ten minutes, and the next couple were shorter ones, putting the band on stage for just over twenty minutes, probably about the right amount of clamour to lay on the crowd. Enough to keep me interested and to think that when I see 'em again, they won't be rehashing what they did here.1

Listen to an excerpt from this set here.

"It's going to be a really loud show, starting with the next band," Dovercourt noted, touting the earplugs for sale at the merch table.2 This would be the right mental place to be in for noise-grunge purveyors METZ, who took the guitar explorations of the night so far, and dipped them in acid 'til they were worn down to corroded sharp points. Once the trio were ready to go, all the rights on stage were extinguished, save for one on the bass drum, creating the murky atmosphere that the band prefers to go along with their hard-driving grind. Familiar tracks from their singles like "Negative Space" and "Dry Up" filled all the crannies of the room.

Interestingly, the band's live sound is a bit more straight-ahead than the recordings, where the band is willing to fuck around with things a bit, cross-breeding the noise with some studio trickery. That makes the songs more direct live — one new one barely stretched to two minutes, though one gets a sense of how the band could prolong it in the studio. METZ gigs are quick by nature, here just seven songs in under twenty-five minutes — and this might be on the longer side by the band's standards. Bracing stuff, and again I found it a pretty satisfying mix, with enough of a "song" sensibility to keep the noisier parts from getting too untethered. Word is that the band is finally working on a full-length release, so we'll see in the future if that's going to give their live sets something more like the arc of an album side than a batch of hit and run singles.3

Listen to a song from this set here.

Those opening sets were a good chance for the bands to reach a slightly different audience than usual, as Mission of Burma brought out a slightly older crowd, with a lot of folks who looked like grown-up music enthusiasts who don't get out to as many gigs as they used to. But I could well imagine people making an exception for the Boston three-piece. One of the most seminal 80's American bands, Mission of Burma helped create the topography around those nebulous terrains sprawling away from "postpunk", but didn't really last long enough in their original incarnation to enjoy the fruits of their labours, disbanding in 1983 after releasing an EP and an album that would come to be seen as forward-looking classics. Reuniting in the early part of the aughts, the band has had a second act that has outlasted the first in terms of duration and output, with the band now having released three albums — and receiving some well-deserved appreciation — in their second go-round.

As the band set up, there were some indications that this wasn't just your usual bunch of young tyros from down the block. Most obvious was the drum baffle in front of the kit, something you only usually see on a stage for the fussier sort of jazz combos. The trio took the stage, leading off with Roger Miller's "Donna Sumeria" (from 2006's The Obliterati), featuring a guitar groove that was pure fingertapping classic rock before exploding into the wiry shrapnel shapes the group is known for. From there, the songs featured alternating frontmen, veering into Conley's anthemic-yet-goofy romp "1, 2, 3, Partyy!" (from the most recent album, '09's The Sound The Speed The Light). After Peter Prescott's droll "Good Cheer", the band reached back to 1981 and their first incarnation for the blistering "This Is Not a Photograph", followed by "Mica" (from '82's Vs.) which contained a prominent intervention from offstage member Bob Weston behind the soundboard, with Conley's vocals slowly wiping themselves away in a hazy cloud.4

Playing a show outside the promo cycle of their last album, the band was free to range around their catalogue as they saw fit. Interestingly, they seemed to actually favour 2006's The Obliterati, which got a generous representation, including "Careening With Conviction", "2wtice", and "Let Yourself Go", of which Miller commented, "it's only a suggestion, not a command."

The band pumped out songs with ruthless efficiency, rarely stopping to catch their breath. The set even looked ahead to the future, with one bracing new song called "This is Hi-Fi", plus another that might be called "Love Comes Undone" ("Love comes undone / I wanna undo you"), which I can't yet find any reference to online. There was the mesomorphic rock of "Nancy Reagan's Head" as well as some relative obscurities, like "Nu Disco", from the Peking Spring collection.5 The set-ending pairing of "Learn How" (sounding like the forehead from which a thousand postpunk bands sprung) followed by the bracing punk (not "post") of "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate" finished things in awesome fashion.

And then a generous encore, and it was pleasing to note that something newer like "1001 Pleasant Dreams" was as bracing as "Academy Fight Song". After an instrumental (featuring Conley on guitar) the house music came up and I thought the band was done, but the crowd kept cheering and they came out again to tear out "The Ballad of Johnny Burma" and "Peking Spring". Nearly ninety minutes of goodness when all was said and done, and looking back, this would have to be counted as one of the year's best concerts.

A couple selections from this set on offer: you can check out something from the past or something from the future.

1 And, in fact, I'll be seeing Hybrid Moments again at Wavelength 516, coming up on Sunday, March 13, 2011, where they'll be joined by The Deeep and Eons, the debut of the new "solo" project from Bruce Peninsula's Matt Cully.

2 This is totally laudable, but it really makes one wonder why this isn't the case at every show.

3 Perhaps in anticipation of having an album to offer, the band has made their three singles available on their bandcamp page on a "name your price" basis, which means $0 or more. Combined together, the six tracks make for a potent little EP.

4 Weston's manipulations were less gear-intensive than I might have imagined, involving just a small digital looping box patched into the soundboard.

5 This one does, however, make for a key part in the MoB story, as after writing it, Miller thought it should include a tape loop, which led to the band's association with original sound manipulator Martin Swope. Swope's role with the band, as an interventionist soundman who didn't appear on stage, was something new and Bob Weston has kept that element of the band alive with his presence in the reunited lineup.


  1. This is a great review! Thanks!

  2. I'm guessing I got bonus Jen points for mentioning hearing protection!