July 17, 2002

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Burmese

June 24, Kimo's

"Turn off the music. Turn up the microphone." Oakland three-piece Burmese took the stage to the sound of one of Andrew W.K.'s happy party anthems, "Fun Night." This was apparently not the band's choice, since AWK's I Get Wet album had been playing for the last half hour, and the band had to glare and then ultimately yell at the sound man in order to get it turned off. Still, as far as contrasts go, this was great entrance music. The transition out of AWK's zealous good-time rock ("We're gonna have a fun night, fun night, fun night, fun night / Gonna get off, gonna get off, gonna get off, gonna get off!") only highlighted the menace of Burmese's start, an abrupt "1-2-3-4" followed by a high-speed bass-sludge train wreck and then an extended one-chord dirge with screamed-out lyrics like "Kill! Torture! Humiliate!"

Burmese shows are all about bad vibes. Without fail, the band manage to project an air of ill will and claustrophobic tension that fills the room. This is especially true of their shows over the past year. While they do play actual songs with lyrics and some decipherable structure – at least, most of the time – Burmese's music is ultimately not about notes, chords, beats, or anything like that. If you wrote it down on paper and gave it to someone else to play, it probably wouldn't be very interesting. But in their hands, it takes on a physical presence that outweighs the sum of the parts. (True, a lot of that presence comes from the use of two extremely loud, distorted electric basses, which they beat the hell out of while they play, but it goes beyond that.)

Burmese shows used to be more physically confrontational, with the two bassists (both named Mike) spending half of their sets out in the crowd, taunting audience members and testing their sense of personal space. At a show last summer they set up huge floodlights that they flashed on and off during the show; the sight of a bunch of supposedly hardened underground music enthusiasts attempting to cover their eyes and ears at the same time while remaining in a standing position, and even clapping between songs, was perverse. The last time I saw Burmese, on a bill with Wolf Eyes in December at the Covered Wagon, one of them, the little Mike, stuck his freaking left hand right down my shirt and then grabbed a hold of it from the inside while clutching the microphone with his other hand.

Maybe they're tired of getting in fights, or maybe it just got old, but Burmese have eased up on the physical crowd-taunting aspect of their performance. Still, the confrontational vibe is there, and at least while they're up onstage, it feels real and threatening – I don't know much about their personal lives, but someone I know described them as "teddy bears." They don't need the old pseudo-tough guy performance-art antics anymore; these days the evil just seems to ooze out of their pores.

Monday night's show was a typically concise set of what can only be described as "Burmese music" – overdriven blasts of misanthropic hardcore grind mixed in with minimal (but still very loud) dirge sections. Near the set's end, drummer Mark Schaffer got up from behind his kit and took over on electronics, while the two Mikes put down their basses and took turns spouting out cryptic political rants over the noise and feedback. By the end, little Mike was teetering on the edge of the stage with his clenched left fist in the air, saying something like "We've got the power ... and we're gonna use it," while the other Mike just stood there leering out into the crowd with this impossibly sick, disturbed look on his face. (Do they practice these moves in the mirror or what?)

A couple of people in the crowd actually broke out laughing, while some eyed the band in fear and others just stood there expressionless. Judging from the comments I overheard on the way out, though, most seemed to enjoy the experience. What this says about masochistic tendencies or the need some of us feel to be subjected to temporary assault (and subsequent letdown), I'll let someone else figure out. (Will York)