Mission of Burma

The Sound The Speed The Light

(Matador; 2009)

By David M. Goldstein | 28 November 2009

In this current rock climate dominated by sensitive beards and laptop jockeys, Mission of Burma’s continued, three-decade no-bullshit approach to post-punk is refreshing. Frou-frou is kept to a bare minimum: save producer Bob Weston on occasional tape loop duty (Martin Swope pre-2002), all they provide and ever have provided is bass, drums, and Roger Miller’s torrents of guitar, which, mind you, only sounds like the work of seven or so separate guitarists. (Playing live as a three-piece, they even refuse to use the “fourth man lurking in the onstage shadows” so common to power trios.) If Mission of Burma was a contestant on Top Chef, they’d be the one always insisting on “simple dishes” only made from “seasonal ingredients.”

This consistently unadorned attitude paid critical dividends when the band magically resumed after a 21-year “hiatus” with 2004’s alarmingly self-assured OnOffOn. 2006 follow-up The Obliterati was even better received, likely on the strength of “2wice,” the OMFG shotgun blast that ripped open the album from its very inception. But here’s The Sound, The Speed, The Light and it was released a little over a month ago to the blogosphere’s palpable indifference. It’s confusing—words such as “workmanlike” and “unexciting” have been bandied about, suggesting that critics are beginning to take the Burma reunion for granted, which is unfortunate if only because they’re the one band in recent memory to have gotten it—the justification for the whole reunion thing; subsequent longevity and corollary relevance—completely fucking right. Their existence in 2009 should be embraced.

That a given, The Sound, The Speed, The Light is easily comparable in quality to Mission of Burma’s two previous reformation releases. While it lacks a single track as instantly spellbinding as “2wice” or even OnOffOn‘s “Wounded World,” it compensates by being devoid of the side-B filler that, in turn, stilted those albums. Light, at a lean 40 minutes and twelve songs, is purposely sequenced to sound like four suites of three tunes each; it’s the most cohesive, even whole, of Burma’s recent releases, not a skippable bit to be confronted.

But it also takes longer than usual to sink in. With the exceptions of lead off track “1, 2, 3, Party!” and requisite Peter Prescott rant “Good Cheer,” the tempos are slower than we’ve come to expect and there’s little of the instant gratification associated with The Obliterati or even Vs. (1982). To reference another post-punk band to which Mission of Burma is oft-compared: think more The Argument (2001), less 13 Songs (1990). Mid-album cuts such as Miller’s “After the Rain” and bassist Clint Conley’s “SSL 83” (perhaps so-dubbed because the lead riff is heavily reminiscent of 1983 song “New Disco”?) aren’t necessarily less anthemic than the band’s traditionally speedy fare, just more heavily layered and slower to unfurl. Likewise for the mantra “Forget Yourself” and closer “Slow Faucet,” as menacing a track as they’ve ever done, its uncomfortable tension triggered by Conley’s miles-deep bass line. Lest the proceedings become too sedate, drummer Prescott remains the go-to guy for three bursts of inspired wackiness, and Miller’s late album “Comes Undone” jitters along like early R.E.M. (not for nothing the latter once covered “Academy Fight Song”).

So contrary to popular opinion, Mission of Burma didn’t somehow relax, slumped on their laurels, in the three years since The Obliterati. The Sound, The Speed, The Light showcases a confident group of musicians working effortlessly together, ever evolving, far more than “an aging cult band with the same 5,000 or so people who always buy their records” (according to the lame ass hipster who sold me said document)—Mission of Burma demand our continuing respect as they continue to succeed in what it was we have always respected them for.

:: myspace.com/missionofburma