You could make a case that Peter Prescott is the only true rock soul of Mission of Burma; he’s the least classically influenced, he has the most fun playing, and he’s the most unconventional instrument player of the band, whether or not he’s the greatest. In your defense of that case the first two Volcano Suns albums, The Bright Orange Years and The Flying Lotus, would be the best exhibits you can find. Prescott was still relatively green in mid-’80s. He was the MoB member who fought their premature breakup the hardest, and he clearly had more left in the tank at the time than bandmates Roger Miller and Clint Conley. The long-overdue reissues of the Volcano Suns albums are equal in greatness — if not in importance — as the now-lionized pre-reunion Mission of Burma releases.
Most important, the two albums, and Bright Orange Years especially, show what Missio of Burma could have been if they actually wanted to have fun instead of stick to their conceit. For all the ways the Volcano Suns maintained the unconventional song structures and twisted pseudo-melodies that Prescott helped pioneer with Burma, the Volcano Suns are much more of a straight-out rock band: faster, sillier, and more focused on finding a hook in the mess.
Of course, that’s a very 2008 perspective. Bright Orange Years came at a time when R.E.M. was considered shockingly unconventional in the mainstream world. But it also came at a time when Hüsker Dü was beginning to suggest that the underground had more commercial potential than anyone had previously thought possible. With these two worlds converging, Bright Orange Years doesn’t quite fit into either frame of reference. Unlike with Mission of Burma, there’s no “hit” like “That’s When I Reached for My Revolver,” but overall, the Volcano Suns are more digestible than their predecessor. Instead, they spread the pop over the course of individual moments — often at a second’s switch — rather than on extended stretches of individual songs.
After Vs., there was no going back to real pop for any Mission of Burma member. But that doesn’t stop The Bright Orange Years from occasionally stopping you cold with rock power as strong as Townshend or Clapton ever produced. Choice moments include fantastic opening guitar hook on “Jak,” the volatile major-minor key interplay of “Descent Into Hell,” the Marquee Moon-like progression of “Truth is Stranger Than Fishing” the isolated tough-guy guitar march of “I’m Gonna Make You Mine,” and the delicacy of “Cornfield” interrupted by, of all things, a nasty piano track. All of these are traditional tools in constructing a great rock album, but they come in between lots of meandering, vocal screeching, and seemingly endless refrains. Just as you think there’s nothing going on, something happens that gets you thinking deeply about what you had assumed to be rock n’ roll.
“Balancing Act,” an aptly named track, is the most pop-like song on the album, but it’s an outlier. What makes Bright Orange Years such a compelling and occasionally infuriating album is that is defiantly not more than the sum of its parts. Volcano Suns allow us to see just how strong those parts are when disconnected from any sense of structure or unity. Separating form from function was one of the key elements to Mission of Burma’s legacy. When that band had been done blowing up pop with fractured unmelodic chaos, Prescott and his bandmates took it on themselves to see what melodic chaos sounded like. As it turns out, you can have more fun that way while still keeping character.