When a great band releases an album after more than 20 years of silence, we as two questions. First, is the new stuff as good as the old? And second, even if it is
good, is it relevant? OnOffOn
is indeed as good as anything from Mission of Burma's all too brief early-1980s heyday -- standing up, for instance, to shuffle play with Signals, Calls and Marches
with only one glaring hitch (more on this later). As for the second question, you'd maybe have to ask someone 20 years younger than I am for confirmation, but my sense is that these tunes are fresh and intelligent and aggressive and out of the mainstream, not just compared with past output, but compared to anything coming out today. Yes, everybody does tape manipulation now, so it's not as shocking as it was 20 years ago, but the main thing -- the raw, angry intelligence crossed with melodicism -- jars and off-balances and draws you in as well as it ever did.
OnOffOn includes contributions from all three original Burma members. (Bob Weston, filling in for Martin Swope on tape loops, did not write any songs for the album.) Once you get the hang of it, it's easy to identify who wrote what. Guitarist and frontman Roger Miller's tunes are elegantly wiry, fired with anger, yet oddly hooked and instantly memorable ("The Set-Up"). You could say, in one of those neat half-true, half-false statements, that Miller's songs sound most like you'd expect Mission of Burma to sound. If you did, though, you'd be ignoring the melodious, borderline harmonious lyricism that bass player Clint Conley has always brought to the band -- and that he now slips into even his most slammed-out tracks ("Dirt", "Nicotine Bomb"). You'd also be slighting the hardcore leaning, hammering, jammering punk that drummer Peter Prescott kicks, all shouted choruses and bludgeoning energy ("The Enthusiast", "Fake Blood"). The fact that these three guys spent over 20 years apart, having separate experiences and developing separate interests, may make OnOffOn a slightly less cohesive album on the surface, but if you listen closely, you can hear Conley's harmonies over Prescott's hard-charging rhythms, and detect Miller's stark, stabbing guitar in both soft and hard rocking tunes. There's continuity. There's variation. Both at the same time.
There's continuity not just across tracks, but across decades, as two songs are retakes on older Burma songs. "Dirt", sounding like a long-lost cousin to tuneful punk landmarks like "Academy Fight Song" and "That's When I Reach for My Revolver", here gains a gritty, melodic intensity with cleaner production treatment. "Playland", which harks back more to the rougher, angular, oddly-tuned assault of "Outlaw", channels post-punk chant and pummeling guitar into cathartic outburst. There's also a shimmering, narcotic track called "Max Ernst's Dream", which may relate to the faster, more intense "Max Ernst" single from 1980. (Or maybe they just like Abstract Expressionism.)
The best of the new songs -- "The Set-Up", "The Enthusiast", "Wounded World", "Nicotine Bomb" -- are ferociously good, bringing a brainy intensity and passionate engagement that seems to have been missing from punk spectrum for quite some time. Along with recent work by The Mekons, Wire, Pere Ubu and others, they set to rest the notion that punk music is somehow age-restricted. The music is really loud, really rock, really in your face, and makes no concessions to age.
One track, I think, will divide people (it's certainly caused some heated discussion in this house). It's "Prepared". It's one of Conley's, it has strings and plucked guitar and sensitive lyrics, and it sounds like nothing Mission of Burma has ever done (though it does sound a bit like Consonant). I think it's a great song, sparse and bare. It reminds me of certain Bevis Frond songs, of the Soft Machine, or even, in its heart-breaking use of strings, of Kristin Hersh's "Your Ghost". Unfortunately, it has an adverse affect on the disc's momentum. There's a 15-second blank ninth track immediately afterward, I think because nothing else on OnOffOn could remotely make the transition smooth. If you want to make the case that anyone's getting soft, this is clearly exhibit A -- but if you listen to the track by itself, without any expectations for how Mission of Burma should sound, it's quite beautiful.
The rest of the album picks up, astonishingly, exactly where the band left off, not exactly retracing old paths but branching off of them into new and exciting vistas. OnOffOn stands up, Burma's unholy cerebral racket as relevant and as good as ever. This is going to be one of the best records of 2004.