Mission of Burma | Unsound (Fire Records)

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Does all of this experimentation sound off-putting? You’d think so, wouldn’t you? And yet, oddly, it isn’t.

 

 

The 2000s were the decade of the unlikely reunion, with countless beloved indie rock trailblazers (from the Pixies to My Bloody Valentine to Slint to even dead-since-the-‘70s bands like the Stooges and the New York Dolls) burying the hatchet and hitting the reunion tour circuit. Mission of Burma’s reunion was about as unlikely as any other, not because of the intensity of their breakup or any long simmering feuds, but because of the brevity of their original incarnation: the group released just one EP, one full-length, and two singles between 1980 and 1982—all classics, to be sure, but not a large catalog to latch a nostalgia tour onto. And yet, after a 19-year breakup, the Boston-based quartet returned with a smattering of 2002 tour dates leading to a comeback album, ONoffON, in 2004. The album’s stark cover art—three light switches, alternating between on and off positions—was a bold statement, implying that the band was “on” for their influential early life (a brilliant burst that inspired artists ranging from R.E.M. to Moby) and that, after 19 years “off,” the band was back and just as “on” as ever. And yet, amazingly, it proved no mere boast, with ONoffON and its two sequels (2006’s The Obliterati and 2009’s The Sound, The Speed, The Light) continuing Burma’s mission of supplying aggressively idiosyncratic post-punk, a tradition that’s alive and well, and even amplified, on the band’s latest, Unsound.
 
The opening three song salvo serves as a microcosm of Mission of Burma’s three-headed beast approach to songwriting. Guitarist Roger Miller opens the proceedings with “Dust Devil,” a stridently bizarre rocker built on a guitar riff that chugs, wheezes, and sproings like a sputtering jalopy on its last legs, an incendiary blast of abrasive punk that blazes by in under two minutes. (Somewhat shockingly, the song started life as “an acoustic guitar improvisation.” The idea of this song even being playable on an acoustic sort of boggles the mind.) Bassist Clint Conley counters with “Semi-Pseudo-Sort-of Plan,” a down tempo song whose anthemic properties echo Burma classics like “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” and “Academy Fight Song” but with a slower, more haunting feel amplified by eerily cooed backing vocals. Drummer Peter Prescott’s “Sectionals in Mourning” throws in everything but the kitchen sink: a throbbing bass riff, lurching, vaguely Melvins-esque verses, vocals chanted in a Bauhaus-era Peter Murphy-like bray, noodling guitar, handclaps, and, somewhat improbably, a huge, hooky chorus that comes out of nowhere two-thirds of the way through the song and is only sung through once.
 
And there’s more where that came from, thanks to songwriting sessions that saw the band members frequently swapping instruments and purposefully pushing outside of their comfort zone. “This Is Hi-Fi” offers up a pinging guitar riff, repeated hushed whispers of the song’s title, and free verse lyrics spoke-sung through a telephone (for that extra bit of distortion/emotional distance) that eventually gives way to walls of guitar squall and waves of crashing cymbals. Producer/utility player Bob Weston makes his presence felt on “ADD in Unison,” adding in weird dialogue samples, looped backing vocals, and a blaring trumpet to add some oomph to the song’s driving midsection. Weston’s trumpet returns on the stomping “When They Tell Me,” serving as mere accent until the song’s closing moments, when multiple trumpet loops pile on top of each other to form a free jazz freakout worthy of John Zorn.
 
Does all of this experimentation sound off-putting? You’d think so, wouldn’t you? And yet, oddly, it isn’t. Despite Mission of Burma’s unrelenting drive to never do anything the easy way (seriously, the straight-up Buzzcockian punk-pop of “7’s” is the only song that plays it even remotely straight ahead), Unsound still goes down smooth, thanks to the band’s shear visceral power, songwriting craft, and knack for slipping in memorable hooks in just the right places. Given the brilliant music the band is still crafting over 30 years after their debut, it’s worrisome to see Miller and Prescott both tell Magnet that they still ponder if the band has a future after each new album, and never more so than after separating from their label Matador prior to the release of Unsound. If the band still has albums this powerful, this confounding, this vital, this creative in them, we can only hope that Mission of Burma chooses to leave the lights “on” at least a little bit longer. | Jason Green
 
On November 13, Mission of Burma announced the release of a best of compilation covering both their early years and their post-reunion material. For more info, visit their official website at MissionOfBurma.com
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