Back after 19 Years and Better Than Ever

They’ve been out of commission for 22 years, but you’d never know it listening to Mission of Burma’s powerful, bracingly-fresh, time-warp of a post-punk/art-rocking noise assault, recorded last year. It sounds more like someone lowered the stylus on a record that’s been spinning silently for decades than the premier effort of a re-formed trio of middle- aged geezers who sound as youthfully exuberant as they did in 1979.

The Boston-based band’s legend is considerably larger than its meager discography, which consists of a couple of singles, an album, and an EP plus a few demos and radio transcriptions. But thanks to those records, live performances during the group’s short life span (1979-1983), covers by REM, Moby and others, and 1997 Rykodisc reissues, the band has never really gone away.

Original knob twister/tape manipulator Martin Swope declined to rejoin the group, so on tour and on this album, engineer Bob Weston (Shellac) supplies the tape loops and the textural gauze that helps knit together the muscular power trio of Roger Miller (guitar), Clint Conley vocals) and Peter Prescott (drums). Weston is also a big fan of analog (I once gave him advice on buying a turntable and a phono preamp), so this is a pure AAA production: analog recording, analog mix, and on vinyl, cut from the analog master tape.

Fans of the fast, taut, guitar-driven, sometimes tuneful rock turned out by bands like The Buzzcocks, Wire, Gang of Four, Sonic Youth, PIL, The Pixies, and even the Fall, will eat this album up.

The music is edgy, yet tuneful; aggressive, yet thoughtful and sometimes introspective and downright beautiful (“Prepared”). Though drawn from twenty year old templates, everything here sounds fresh and assertive. After listening to the four sides a few times, I went back to the group’s first single, “Academy Fight Song”/“Maxt Ernst” (Ace of Hearts AHS 104) and damn if these guys don’t still have the ability to fire with full power. “I am not your academy…stay just as far from me as I do to you!” Miller warns, as if setting the rules of engagement for the band’s fans at the very beginning.

While the group can break through on stage with sheer energy, on record Mission of Burma depends heavily on a carefully nuanced recording—one that can effectively deliver the complex textural and tonal shards spit out by Roger Miller’s guitar and drummer Peter Prescott’s crispy snare and chiming cymbals.

In the hands of a modern “slam it to 0 dynamic range” engineering hack, this record might have sunk into an undifferentiated mass of two-dimensional noise since so much of the band’s output is in a relatively narrow frequency band. Thanks to Weston’s care, taste and reliance upon analog, the cymbals chime, the snare crackles, and the kick drum has timbral and textural authority. The drums, Miller’s guitar and the vocals inhabit their own spaces, instead of being mushed together, which is what happens in so many modern recordings.

While much of Weston’s great work here comes through on the CD, the 2 LP set is so much better. The CD is spatially flatter, the drums are smooshed together and the kick has little definition. I did not have the SACD.

This is not an audiophile recording, nor can it sonically match, say, Bill Price’s work with The Clash in terms of immediacy, transparency and bass extension and weight, but it’s so much better than most of what passes for good rock recordings today, it sounds plenty good.

Both a stroll down musical memory lane and totally fresh, thoughtful music making, Mission of Burma’s OnoffON is one the musical highlights of the year—at least for fans of this kind of music (and you know who you are). Highly recommended.