Review Summary: A landmark recording of a legendary post-punk band in their initial prime, Vs. utterly embodies the spirit of underground rock and captures a sound yet to be equaled in both intelligence and power.
Let’s just begin by saying that Vs. is a class-A album by a legendary and deservedly worshipped band, aptly named by Eric M. Van as the greatest band in the history of the world. However, though this, and all other Burma material, is stellar and spectacular and better than most anything else out there, it just misses perfection by an inch. It certainly represents an exciting and unique sound, wonderfully expressed by creative and unconventional songwriters at the height of their powers. But a certain few missteps place this album in the category of essential, not perfect.
Burma has a good thing going here, of course. Of their (now) three studio albums and EP, this has the best drum and guitar sound by far. It certainly represents their sound as faithfully as can be expected. When I hear Signals, Calls, and Marches, I sometimes cringe at the edge that was taken off of the guitar sound, especially in the Academy/ Max Ernst single. The guitar sounds pushed back and gagged, not as up front and wrenching as it should be at all. And the drum sound is pretty cardboard or flat at times on Signals, or murky on some of their later albums. Here, though, we find roaring and jangling guitars perfectly balanced with the band’s secret weapons: clean, skilled drumming, melodic and heavy bass, and subtle tape loops.
The subtlety of the tape loops are a real treat here, offering much appeal to careful and longtime listeners. The auditory Easter Egg hunt necessitated by Martin Swope’s tape manipulations reveals a plethora of near subliminal sounds, and some so obvious it’s hard to believe you couldn’t hear them before. For the gentle sound:, in Trem Two, a very gentle reversed hum plays on every other beat of the guitar riff. For Fun World, though, a wrenching screech sounds during the guitar line, outside enough to suggest that it is a tape manipulation and not normal instrumentation. Vocal chatter and beds of found sound adorn Dead Pool, Mica, and Learn How… the list goes on.
The playing here is assured without being needlessly virtuosic. Roger’s guitar lines are heavily rhythmic in nature when not spewing beautiful noise, meshing perfectly with Clint’s bass and Peter’s powerful but technical drumming in a rolling ball of righteous punk fury. It’s often catchy, sometimes violent, and never boring.
The opening three songs put us off on a great foot here, offering a trebly single chord attack on “Secrets” before a pseudo drum solo kicks in. “Train” is a structural wonder, driving forward in seemingly disconnected parts in seemingly random times, Prescott gluing it all together with some incredible percussion, a technically brilliant and memorable performance. “Trem Two” has a heavy eponymous trem effect, creating a unique reverberating riff that anchors a slow dirge. After arriving at a prepared piano piece, the song drifts into an understated but intense instrumental ending that hits with all the force that Conley’s powerful bass notes and Miller‘s slashing guitar can muster.
However, “New Nails”, while expanding their vocabulary with a touch of horn and expressing their radical views on the church, is a misstep, a less-than-melodic rave that seems atonal enough to be grating instead of just outré. “Learn How“, Prescott’s contribution, seems less compelling coming just before “Mica” and “Weatherbox“, which both seem more interesting in comparison. And while there are plenty of strong songs, none seem to be as downright incredible as "Academy Fight Song" or That’s When I Reach For My Revolver (even though BOTH of those songs, and Peking Spring as well, seriously need to be re-recorded in the style of this album, just putting it out there).
This shouldn’t deter anyone from buying this album. The four bonus tracks included, while perhaps lessening the impact of the sudden stop ending of the original CD version, are still essential Burma, among which are a genuine love song (“Forget”), a rollicking but jumpy punk rocker in the vein of Johnny Burma or Certain Fate (“OK/No Way”), a nearly robotic bass-line-rocking impressionist piece a la Max Ernst (“Laugh The World Away”), and the closing “Progress”, which is depressive enough to make all human history seem trite. (Though the mix is a little thin here and there on “Progress”.)
And there you have it. As stated before, just shy of a perfect ‘classic’, but there’s no reason to pass it up by any means. It rocks hard, it’s to the point when need be, and complex and subtle enough to reward the time you’ll spend with it puzzling it out.