So back in the late 70s and early 80’s there was this young Boston band called Mission of Burma that basically invented indie rock (read about it in the book Our Band Could Be Your Life if you’re interested. It’s really good. It’s got The Argus Guarantee). Formed in 1979, Burma combined the speed, aggression, and volume of the punk they loved with elements of the free jazz, krautrock, and psychedelia they were talented enough to play. They also borrowed a lot from Joy Division and Gang of Four.  But anyway, their music: it was occasionally anthemic, occasionally murky and menacing, but always strikingly original combining frenetic, noisy guitar with melodic basslines, stumbling percussion, loud-quiet-loud dynamics, and chopped-‘n’-screwed tape loops. They made one great single, one awesome EP, one spectacular full-length, and one just-ok live album. Then in 1985, Roger Miller, their hotshot guitarist, developed tinnitus and the band, well, disbanded, but not before influencing ALL THE BANDS (Seriously, no Burma would have meant no Hüsker Dü, no Pixies, no Pavement, and no Nirvana – oh, and Burma fans, sorry I started this review like every other Burma review starts, but you gotta teach the youth).

Then I guess they sat around and cried for a few decades (actually, they were in a bunch of different projects, many of which were and are awesome, like the Miller’s Alloy Orchestra, who build instruments out of found objects and do film scores. They were here two years ago. You probably missed out, since no one showed up). Meanwhile, the Great Grunge Boom of 1991-1995 generated a lot of ill will towards guitar-indie. So who knows why Mission of Burma decided to reunite in 2002? To show everyone how it was done, in any likelihood, and also to pioneer a whole new innovation: reunions that didn’t suck (they were shortly followed by Dinosaur Jr., and….Polvo? Is there anyone else? Lets wait and see with Sunny Day Real Estate). Burma always sounded fairly cantankerous, so reappearing as cranky old punk dads hollering about wounded worlds and men in decline worked pretty brilliantly. They didn’t exactly sound like they did twenty years: their sound was more textured, noisier, sludgier, and included some ghostly falsetto and the odd cello. A lot of critics said Burma “still had it.” But really, they’d done something better: they’d developed.

Except not really anymore. The Sound The Speed The Light, the third LP of Burma’s reunion (and the fourth of their career – weird) is probably the most reminiscent of their original run. Hell, one of their songs refers to the year 1983. The cello’s gone, the falsetto’s relegated to the background and Miller, bassist Clint Conley, and drummer Pete Prescott (who all write and sing) have added more punk-y shoutalongs and noise freakouts, to complement stately, psychedelic slowburners that formed the backbone of their latter-day material. This record is probably more consistent than either of Burma’s last two, avoiding the eminently skip-able valleys of 2004’s ONoffON, while falling short of the heights of their 2006 masterwork The Obliterati. Everything flows pretty smoothly, but the highlights, if you want me to pick ‘em out, are the ragers “Good Cheer” (where Roger Miller pulls off his awesome trick of making a guitar sound like a helicopter – for reals), “Comes Undone,” and opener “1,2,3, Partyy” (which includes the fairly great line “drink only when drunken to”), along with the Wagnerian midpoint “After The Rain” and closer “Slow Faucet.”

Here’s the bottom line on The Sound The Speed The Light: if you don’t like Mission of Burma, this won’t convince you. If you’re a Burma-head (I am a big, big Burma-head), this a solid consignment of new material, not their best certainly, but definitely not their worst either. And if you’ve never checked out Burma (you should check out Burma), this is as good a place as any to check out their chaotic brilliance. Some people don’t like consistency – they think every band needs to come up with some crazy new idea on each record. But Mission of Burma don’t need to reinvent the wheel. They invented the wheel in 1981. I just want them to keep rolling. And rocking. Maybe not in that order.

  • Eric M. Van

    Great little review. One correction — Burma didn’t borrow anything from Gang of Four, who were contemporaries. In fact, Roger Miller’s last band in Ann Arbor c. 1977, Red Ants, sounded more like Go4 than Burma did.

    Now, Pere Ubu, they were an influence …

  • ben firke

    no shout out to the 4th guy who does the tape loops?

  • jeff