Since reforming in 2002, Mission of Burma has consistently avoided the most common pitfall in the biz: a once-influential band reunites and sullies their good name in the process. And living up to such landmarks of American post-punk as 1981’s Signals, Calls, and Marches and 1982’s Vs. is no cakewalk. Those albums sound as vital today as they did upon their release and if they aren’t in your arsenal of music… well, check them out now because you’re missing out. Mission of Burma is the thinking punk’s music—their rhythmic intensity, instantly recognizable style, and mix of noise and melody are unlike any other. The apt title of return album ONoffON had its moments. The Obliterati from 2006 nearly reaches the height of the band’s early material. Now, with the release of The Sound the Speed the Light the band rolls out another solid, if slightly unspectacular album. It’s certainly no spoiler though.
The album begins with “1,2,3 Partyy!”, a charging, humorous burner with classic Burma shredding from Roger Miller. Drummer Peter Prescott stabs the beat, accenting the action with the hostility and restlessness that makes the band’s music so propulsive. Clint Conley’s bass forms the bedrock for Miller and Prescott’s explorations while offering a measure of calm. The song surges and spins like the classic “This Is Not a Photograph” from Signals, Calls, and Marches. Parallels could also be drawn to the aggressive second track from The Obliterati “Spider’s Web”. However, after the roiling “Possession”, the gentle picking of the intro to “Blunder” announces that this is a record with a different wrinkle—a softer one.
The fourth tune “Forget Yourself” confirms the notion that Burma wants to tweak it’s formula ever so slightly on The Sound the Speed the Light . This is a more introspective, gentle Burma. The song lumbers at what amounts to mid-tempo for the band and even flirts with falsetto at times. It retains an unmistakable Burma quality, but almost caresses the ear before gathering steam for a Miller solo that destroys any semblance of gentleness. The somber mood returns later on the album with the track “Feed”. These softer moments aren’t terribly unsuccessful, but they do come off a bit awkward in spots. Given that this is the third album since their return, however, one can’t fault the band for trying something a little different.
Many of album highlights “SSL 83” and “So Fuck It” operate in the zone where Mission of Burma truly excels: the instrumental sections where their knotty, precise attack can writhe and slash. It’s in these spaces where Burma take the song into unforeseen territory and exhibit their considerable dexterity and tightness. The hypnotic quality of the Miller’s guitar work and the stop-start sections cut as sharp as anything in the band’s discography on “SSL 83” and “So Fuck It”.
Even when the band rips through a song sans an instrumental section as they do on “Good Cheer”, they are more than capable of keeping things unexpected and fresh. The track alternately staggers and sprints, adding gravity and heft to the proceedings in a way that isn’t easily predictable. Only repeated listens reveal when the band is about to lift off it’s frame and hurtle forward. There are times when this band sounds unstoppable, and “Good Cheer” is certainly among them.
“So Fuck It” includes the type of resigned kiss-off expected from an band used to battling: “I often wonder what I’m worth / But I won’t take shit from you or anyone else / So fuck it!” It’s a moment of that old Burma angst that boils just underneath the band’s best work. And it’s how Mission of Burma sounds best: pissed off and charging forward.