Mission of Burma

ONoffON

(Matador; 2004)

By Amir Nezar | 8 June 2004

Fellow CMG writer Mr. Peter Hepburn, a man I still trust in terms of his general music taste and opinion, and whom you should trust as well, did not like this album. His opinion was framed in the context of his never having listened to Vs. I’ll be honest, neither have I. Fuck, I had merely heard of Mission of Burma. Something about them being influential. Or something.

But Mission of Burma’s newest effort—the first thing that I’ve heard from them—is damned impressive. It brings to mind at once the softer moments of Jawbox and the simple and powerful visceral effect of Fugazi, especially as of albums like The Argument. On their last album, and on Red Medicine, their balls-to-the-wall guitar licks and intense aggression sometimes paled in comparison to their more delicate, careful moments. This is the case with OnoffOn as well. Kick-the-shit-out-of-you three chord power blasts like “The Setup,” may have some adrenaline-activating power. But it’s their quieter moments, which sometimes lash out into hotwire guitar fireworks, that makes OnoffOn a sober, excellent effort.

No, it certainly isn’t the rebirth of punk. Yes, almost every Fugazi album in the past decade exceeds it in both quality of production and quality of songcraft. But with Fugazi AWOL, and not a single other punk act out there of near-equal caliber to keep the flame, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have Mission of Burma to keep the faith amidst all these posing 80’s knockoffs.

It’s actually kind of eerie. People almost forget that grunge was largely spawned out of a seething resentment of all these would be trend-setting “cool” people who fabricated emotion to the sound of (could it be more appropriate?) synthesizers. You would have to be a moron of confounding proportions not to see history repeating itself now. Who are some of the hottest acts around? Franz Ferdinand, The Strokes, and Interpol, and recently, the Killers, purveyors of one image or another, and certainly the cool kids, the rockstars that you have no fucking chance of ever being.

Even garage-punk is coming off a bit hollow; it’s difficult to put your finger on it, but something about The Libertines, or The Von Bondies smacks of insincerity. Perhaps its the overbearing swagger of the former, or the ass-retarded lyrics of the latter. But the Von Bondies play aggressive, angry-sounding rawk when nothing about their words or attitudes suggests that they’ve actually got something to be pissed off about. The leering Libertines’ self-consciousness about being rock-stars, and their Clash rip-off sound come off disingenuous; the Clash didn’t fucking care what anyone thought, and they didn’t particularly want to be rock stars—they were, in fact, just really good guys.

This kind of context alone could make Mission of Burma, a punk act spitting in the face of all this glam, relevant. But the fact of the matter is that the songs themselves actually hold up to scrutiny, independent of any kind of contextual analysis. Yes, the abrasive and irritating punch of “The Enthusiast” is hopelessly simplistic and grating. But rare missteps like “The Enthusiast” are countered by a host of excellent punches in the gut of poseurism. The only thing irrelevant about Mission of Burma is the age of its band members.

“The Setup” is an admittedly awkward foot to start on, going through long stretches while alternating between merely two close chords. But in the brief moments between verses and choruses, the band’s skill breathes life into the track, before a killer bridge of swirling, murky guitar and machine-gun fire guitar abuse carries the track on an upswing into the last verse.

Meanwhile, “Hunt Again” leaves no question of MoB’s lethal potential, as the song’s dynamics shift and accelerate into an early guitar bridge of sharp, gritty, ripping guitar. “What We Really Were” sees the band diving beautifully into a well-restrained rush of guitars and impressive melodic passages. “Fake Blood” revs up with a lead exchanged between guitar and bass before pounding into its verses, and then picks up the idea and expands it later, in an extremely artful, dizzying guitar bridge. In a stunning moment that reminds me of Giddy Motors’ Make It Pop, MoB turn out a glorious moment of muted beauty in the indelibly delicate “Prepared.” It’s reminscent of Fugazi’s more quiet passages, and cleanly divides the album into its two sides.

In fact, despite a rare misstep like “The Enthusiast,” there’s only one thing that I would really chide the group for: its production. With such interesting work going on at nearly all levels (guitar, bass, drums, tape loops), for a group to record through what sounds like early 90’s equipment is very nearly a crime. It certainly doesn’t take away from the quality of the songs, but a bit more crispness wouldn’t have taken away MoB’s punk edge.

Ultimately, I simply haven’t heard a punk band in the last four months with anything even approaching the kind of genuine punk flair that MoB have working for them. While occasionally they might sound like they’re harking back to older days, this feels like an album we need in 2004. For some, it might be a letdown after many years of waiting since Vs. But I haven’t been waiting for MoB to come back around; now I’m suddenly very happy they’re back.