May 26, 2006

Mission of Burma turns to heavier grunge sound with their daring Obliterati

Despite its grossly inaccurate current reputation, early ’80s hardcore punk had an incalculable influence on practically every hard rock movement of the past 20 years. Hardcore maintained the raw sound and D.I.Y. aesthetics of the first wave of punk and took it one step further as the anything-goes nature of the movement made the American underground of the ’80s one of the most eclectic and daring movements in the history of contemporary music.

Perhaps no band did as much to advance the ethos of the underground as Mission of Burma, one of the first freethinking bands out of the many in the hardcore scene. With avant-garde, even Dadaist, rhythms and lyrics based on undeniably powerful, catchy guitar anthems, Mission of Burma surpassed the limitations of its primitive Boston independent scene and produced an undeniable classic album in Vs. Simply put, every adventurous indie-rock act that followed, from the Minutemen, Sonic Youth, and Hüsker Dü, through Pavement and Guided by Voices, all the way down to Interpol, Spoon, and Animal Collective, owes more than a little to Mission of Burma.

In the 15 years since the success of Nirvana’s Nevermind, the history of punk has been slowly unraveled in the public eye. Consequently, every punk band this side of the Stooges seems to be getting back together. Mission of Burma is no exception. The dismay caused by the band’s collapse in 1983 due to guitarist Roger Miller’s hearing problems was matched by the excitement caused nearly 20 years later by their unexpected reunion.

Mission of Burma played to sold-out houses for two years before releasing their 2004 album ONoffON on the famed indie label Matador and released The Obliterati earlier this week. For a band that hadn’t played together since the Reagan administration, ONoffON was surprisingly fresh, picking up where Vs. left off and continuing the band’s legacy in an indie-rock scene that is now all open arms.

When listening to ONoffON immediately after Vs., it’s virtually impossible to tell that 20 years have passed. Yet, though the formula is exactly the same, ONoffON does seem slightly more unnatural than their previous album. Whereas the noisy guitar overdubs, unpredictable rhythms, and cryptic lyrics meshed seamlessly on Vs., they are even more distinct on ONoffON. This doesn’t necessarily detract from the ingenious craftsmanship of the band, but as an album, it leads to a less gripping and satisfying sound.

The Obliterati, in contrast, is by far Mission of Burma’s noisiest album to date. From the very onset, bassist Clint Conley and drummer Peter Prescott dig the sludge deeper and deeper, resulting in an album that sounds more like the Melvins than anything else. With this grungy sound, even though it comes about 15 years after the sound’s original appearance, Mission of Burma enters a foray that’s unprecedented in their sporadic history but not out of line with their capabilities. The result is arguably their most exciting, and certainly their most challenging, release to date.

“2wice,” The Obliterati’s opening track as well as the first single pulled from the album, sets the tone for the rest of the 50 minutes. As drummer Peter Prescott beats the shit out of his floor tom, bassist Clint Conley reaches for notes better suited for canine ears than human ones. Meanwhile, Miller’s guitar work is inspired, alternating between the meandering droning to the exceedingly melodic without missing a beat. It’s also immediately clear that Conley’s voice has developed a thicker, sneering tone, which suits the more metallic feel of The Obliterati just fine.

The furious guitar squall and Spartan rhythm section continues onto “Spider’s Web,” which, with it’s deeply pessimistic attitude and insistent tempo, wouldn’t feel at all out of place on Nirvana’s Bleach or any Jesus Lizard album. The third track, “Donna Sumeria,” at first seems like it will be more ambient until it turns into a Pete Townshend–meets–John Cage dissonant power ballad.

While not as gripping as the opening, the middle of the album is still an excellent example of how dense, Sabbath-like guitars do, in fact, have a place in punk. The track “13” slowly toys with listeners’ expectations, as a fast blast of guitar squall always seems impending but never quite gets there, thanks to a wily rhythm section. One of the many marks of success of the album is that “Man in Decline,” which on its own could just as easily fit into the early EPs and Vs., here seems just as equally in line with the doom-metal feel of The Obliterati.

Politics clearly plays a more of a part in The Obliterati than in past Mission of Burma releases, especially toward the end of the album. Lyrically, “Careening with Conviction” is a subtle attack on the Bush administration’s blind faith in its own mantra. Musically, the song’s sly guitar licks are Miller’s most cynical since “The Ballad of Johnny Burma.” Meanwhile, “Is This Where?” and “Period” promote taking action over constantly lamenting through Fugazi-like textures and vocals. “Nancy Reagan’s Head” takes the entire album’s bitterness and condenses it into one of the most inspired punk anthems of the decade.

While this band has always been ahead of its time, there is simply no way Mission of Burma could have made this album in the ’80s. While Seattle grunge was indebted to metal, no underground artist could have released an album this heavy without kissing their indie cred goodbye. Even so, Mission of Burma has managed to remain in line with the sound that made them famous. The mixing of the experimental and the melodic, the eccentrically juxtaposed lead guitar and rhythm section, and the free-association approach to rock ’n’ roll are all here; Mission of Burma just turned it into a burgeoning, slow-moving behemoth.

The Obliterati gets another boost from Bob Weston’s savvy engineering. Through alternating between hi-fi and lo-fi on a case-by-case basis, Weston is crucial to the success of The Obliterati. Furthermore, the fact that Mission of Burma no longer has to maniacally publicize its music lets the band trust their instincts and not try to please every potential audience. As a result, the band members’ songwriting skills and independent spirit have blossomed more than on any other release in their history.

As godfathers of indie rock, Mission of Burma seemingly has nothing left to prove. Their reunion, then, should be nothing more than a celebration of their immense impact on modern rock. Yet, they have decided to be just as audacious as when they were a fledging band out of the Boston punk scene, playing to audiences of less than a dozen people. If Mission of Burma was to stay true to the persistent innovation and constantly progressing line of thought that has made the band such an enduring influence, they had no other choice in how to approach The Obliterati.