Mission of Burma: The Obliterati

[16 June 2006]

By Daniel Spicer

With hindsight, the term ‘post-punk’ seems more and more absurd when you consider the sheer number of bands with hugely differing styles that it was applied to in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. If anything, it seems to denote less a coherent musical approach than a specific historical moment: that period after the first purifying flash of punk had died down and bands, inspired by punk’s galvanising energy to pick up instruments and do it for themselves, started to refine the energy, pushing the aggression and drive into more beautiful and rarefied regions.

How much more absurd, then, for a band releasing a record in 2006 to still have the ‘post-punk’ label hung on them. Yet Mission of Burma haven’t exactly made it easy for themselves. The Obliterati is only their third studio album, the second since they reformed in 2002 after a 19-year sabbatical. Moreover, it’s abundantly clear that the same furious impulses that fuelled their original four-year flash of brilliance have survived the time off: they’re still producing visceral and affecting rock music with all the energy and commitment of their youth.

Yet, while it’s perhaps easy to see why the term ‘post-punk’ is a tempting one to apply, when you actually listen the music contained on The Obliterati, the description’s utter inadequacy and redundancy are hard to ignore. Sure, there are jagged stop-start riffs, fuzzed-up guitar, and shouted, confrontational vocals. But there are so many other layers at work here.

On the surface, this is loud, meticulously produced, 21st century, American rock music with heavy bass, pounding drums, and coruscating guitars, not wholly dissimilar to, say, Placebo or the Mars Volta or any number of contemporary testosterone-drenched outfits. But what really lifts this out of the ordinary is the undeniable craft that has gone into the song writing. Listen a little closer and you find catchy hooks, cheeky falsetto harmonies, and ear-worm lyrical refrains reminiscent of great pop rock bands like the Kinks or the Undertones. Listen even closer and you could swear the harmonies even start to move towards prog-rock complexity, as on “Birthday”‘s delicious chorus, “when two worlds collide they stick together”, while “Let Yourself Go” seems to appropriate some of prog’s more preposterous instrumental bombast.

Elsewhere, you’ll find an unmistakable connection to psychedelia, as on the floaty riff of “Careening with Conviction”, or the tripped-out fretwork of “Donna Sumeria”. Or check out the sludgy blues crawl of “Good, Not Great”, with its amphetamine injected psych-guitar. Or “13”, the closest this album gets to a ballad, sounding almost like an amplified folk tune without losing any of its heavy momentum.

Here’s the bottom line: these 14 songs sound like they always existed, not because they are derivative or unimaginative, but because they connect with the pure essence of rock and roll. By touching on various different aspects of rock music from the last 40 years, Mission of Burma manage to transcend their so-called ‘post-punk’ roots and create loud, stimulating sounds that are a part of the same lineage that produced the Grateful Dead, the Stooges, the New York Dolls, DNA, Nirvana… and on and on into the great never-ending story of rock.

One more thing to consider: more rock history has now elapsed since the end of the punk explosion than went before. The further we move away from punk, the easier it is to see its place in the progression of youth culture and sounds not as a revolution, but as just one more chapter in the same sweaty story. Should we, perhaps, get over the idea of ‘post-punk’ and start thinking of a different term to describe the work of bands like Mission of Burma? Supra-punk, perhaps? Or maybe just… music?

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/mission-of-burma-the-obliterati/