Boston-based Mission of Burma’s latest release, OnOffOn, was released 20 years too late. Their first full-length studio album since 1983, immediately sounds as if it could’ve been recorded when the band was at its early peak. Burma’s distinct influence is noticeable today: stuttering rhythms, irregular shifts in time and booming vocals which contribute to an aural onslaught have become standard tools for underground musicians. They were art-punk without being too pretentious (here’s looking at you, Talking Heads) and wrote gripping anthems with an untamed ferocity. And while these traits have trickled down to modern acts, no one ever sounded like Burma.
In the early ’80s, Mission of Burma were the loudest club band around, which unfortunately contributed to guitarist/vocalist Roger Miller’s acute tinnitus and the band’s early retirement. But, unlike Burma’s contemporaries (Pere Ubu, Gang of Four, Black Flag and X) their volume wasn’t overbearing. It’s apparent on OnOffOn’s “Falling” and “What We Really Were” that the band rumbled and boomed more than they thrashed and shouted. The tunes float along on a steady diet of heavy vibration and softer, more matured theatrical leanings by Miller. Songs like “The Setup,” “Hunt Again,” “Fake Blood,” “Dirt” and “Fever Moon” sound like nothing less than lost classics rescued from the Burma archives.
To go along with a handful of new tracks, OnOffOn revives three songs from the unfinished Burma recording sessions. Miller plays off of his changing moods with “Hunt Again” and “Dirt” as well as the ferocious “Playland,” which would be filler if they didn’t provide context for the rest of the album. Finished and fleshed out by original producer Rick Harte, the three tracks hold the same tenacity as they did in demo form and act as a reference point for the new material’s similar bite.
OnOffOn contains innovative material as well. The clanky, country-esque track “Nicotine Bomb” and the wistful “Prepared” show a band still honing their craft. The vitriolic “Max Ernst’s Dream” shows that Burma’s sound is still fresh and that their 20 year dormant period didn’t harm their ability to create complex and fiery music.
The most striking aspect of OnOffOn is the way Miller, bassist Clint Conley and drummer Peter Prescott — separated for nearly 25 years, each exploring music outside of Mission of Burma — still complement each other. There’s a hint of stability that has endured across decades, and although they’ve lost some hair and gained weight and wrinkles over the years, Mission of Burma’s members still sound committed to the music and each other.
Rating: Four out of five stars.