Herein lies the horrible truth about Burma. After more than two decades away, Mission of Burma have returned to grace us with the 16-track self-produced OnoffON, a strident and stirring album that ranks as one of the finest in their career. This is a record that validates 22 years of musician and fan worship, somehow proving that a band can pick up their career right where they left off without so much as a trace of their absence. It is a certainty that OnoffON will end the year firmly lodged in the top 10 lists of hundreds of rock critics and will also occupy a spot near the top of the Village Voice’s prestigious annual Pazz and Jop poll. So why then, with all of this adulation, is there a negative aspect to this review? Despite the overwhelming greatness of their return and new album, at times it feels like nothing more than the sound of one hand clapping, a valiant performance for an empty room.
The landscape hasn’t changed much in the past two plus decades. When Clint Conley, Roger Miller and Peter Prescott closed down shop in 1982, the country was led by a deluded republican president intent on utilizing military force for geographic expansion under the banner of manifest destiny, the economy was in shambles due to the export of American jobs, and the populace were suffering a crisis of faith. Based on the similar state they returned to, we can hardly blame Mission of Burma for generating an exact replica of their original sound on OnoffON. The vocals are chopped and chanted, guitars bleed on the tracks and the rhythm section careens off into the night chasing a delicate and elusive melody. If I weren’t aware of their triumphant return, I would believe this to be their “lost classic” album recorded sometime around their break-up 1983. While true believers will trumpet this as an enduring example of Burma’s ability to sustain I must admit that I find it a bit eerie. Tracks like “The Setup”, “Max Ernst’s Dream” and “Into the Fire” would have felt right at home on Vs. with their roof-raising kinetic performances and challenging subversive lyrics. The one thing that screams out to me is how little the outside world has shaped these men in the past two decades. Sure, the world really hasn’t changed drastically, but these are the songs of men who haven’t changed their political opinions or been influenced by a new album since they disbanded. That sentiment makes OnoffON feel like a lost relic in spots rather than a dynamic new album by an underground legend.
Despite what others might say, it is an objective truth that Mission of Burma created the rock anthem. Past classics like “Academy Fight Song” and “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” from Signals, Calls & Marches have been covered more times than the field at Fenway Park during rain delays. OnoffON sustains their mantle as kings of the anthem with blow away cuts, “Falling”, “Fever Moon” and album closer “Absent Mind”. An obvious melody and guest-backing vocal from fellow New Englander Tanya Donelly anchors the brilliance of “Falling”. Strip away the distorted guitars and bombastic percussion and the remaining skeleton is the most delicate pop song Roger Miller has ever written. Driven by marching band gone death metal percussion and the aggressive vocal dirge of Clint Conley “Fever Moon” hits its stride in the chorus behind the somber lyrics, “Am I hot?/ Am I cold?/ When did this fever take its hold/ I know yours/ You know mine/ Knock me off the wall when I feel fine/ You and I return to the scene of the crime.” The tape loops of Bob Weston, replacing original member Martin Swope, merge with Conley’s guitar to create an unsettling atmosphere where a wrong step could be the last. The band hits the ball out of the park on final track “Absent Mind”. One of the three songs written by drummer Peter Prescott, “Absent Mind” fuses the guitar rhythm with Prescott’s drumming to create a combustible wall of sound. The frenzy is heightened by impromptu squealing guitar leads and the throttled go for broke yelping of the song title in repetition through out song. It is truly inspiring that this group could resume their work after this break and produce a series of gripping numbers that are on par with the finest in their history.
The inherent duality of OnoffON makes for an enjoyable yet complicated listen. It is clear that Prescott, Conley and Miller have crafted a magnificent work that rivals their former selves for preeminence in the history of Mission of Burma. While a core of enthusiasts will proclaim this to be the most authentic reunion in rock history, the question looms as to how this album will be received by the youth. MoB was a band that galvanized a disenchanted punk underground during their original run, all the while planting the seeds for the college rock movement that would blossom later in the decade. This time around the musical underground is more diffuse and compartmentalized with hundreds of genres, sub-genres and their respective artists crowding the playing field. Unless OnoffON is able to provide some universal theme to bind these disparate listeners it is possible that this return may fall short of the expectations created by the music on this album. There is no more horrible fate than to create a work of genius and then have it go unheard.