Just 10 years ago, the idea of Mission of Burma as “reliable” was too foreign a concept to comprehend. They had been broken up for nearly 20 years, after all, and their initial reunion in 2002 seemed fated for a round of festival and club shows rather than a sequence of strongly crafted and powerful albums boasting the passion and drive of musicians half their age. Then 2004’s ONoffON, happened, putting to rest any notion that the Boston post-punks weren’t planning on sticking around a little while, and making some kickass music at that. Two more albums, 2006’s The Obliterati and 2009’s The Sound, The Speed, The Light, and Mission of Burma go from a brief flicker of short-lived brilliance to a consistent, well-oiled unit with a high standard of quality and an admirable work ethic. In a word: reliable.
Where in some cases “reliable” can be dog-whistle for “conservative,” in the case of Mission of Burma, it’s more a matter of regularly setting a curve. Just as the band pioneered their own unique blend of melody and abrasion in the ’80s via their debut album Vs. and a handful of singles, in their second act, Mission of Burma have maintained a level of energy and volume that not only never wanes, but ends up reconfigured and recontextualized into new and novel permutations. With fifth album Unsound, their first on the Fire label, Mission of Burma is still playing a muscular take on punk rock, but taking some subtle detours along the way.
There’s a familiar feel to Unsound, largely as a result of a refined aesthetic that the group has honed over the years. Clint Conley’s bass maintains a beefy throb. Roger Miller’s guitar rings out with a scratchy chime. Peter Prescott’s drums clobber like fists into a side of beef. Yet, songwriting wise, they’ve yielded some impressive developments. The two-minute opener, “Dust Devil,” transitions between mangled verses and soaring choruses, setting the listener up for one of the more unpredictable rides of the band’s career. Ultimately, however, despite some rhythmically raucous and tonally trying elements, Unsound excels best when at its most melodic. “Semi-Pseudo-Sort-of Plan” is one such peak, heavy and burly as always, but subliminally gorgeous in its layers of harmonized vocals and unencumbered hooks. Likewise, “Second Television” offers the sort of heady jangle that Burma sometimes tucked between more visceral exercises, like “Einstein’s Day” or “Mica.”
For all of Mission of Burma’s unexpected moments of elegance, there are essentially zero moments on Unsound that aren’t either loud, fast or explosive in some way. And for all the band’s evolution as songwriters, Mission of Burma is at their best when firing on all cylinders, a logically absurd but nonetheless accurate measure of quality that Clint Conley sums up best in “7’s”: “That makes perfect sense because it’s totally ridiculous.”
Stream: Mission of Burma – “Dust Devil”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.