In a musical landscape where reunions are a dime a dozen, post-punk outfit Mission of Burma are rare indeed. While they had a four-year run from 1979-1983, the majority of their touring and release schedule has occurred in the last 10 years. In a way, that makes the foursome a fairly “young” band that’s still defining itself after four albums. Yet because of their first run, in addition to their unique musical sensibilities, they’re icons of the punk scene, with all the rights and privileges associated. The band’s latest album, Unsound, demonstrates an awareness of this dichotomy, presenting 11 tracks focused on devil-may-care exploration by a band as cohesive and musically established as any act working today.
There is an undeniable consistency between the album’s songs, a thread of commonality that’s sturdier than the work of so many of their counterparts, past or present. It’s by engaging minor tweaks and flourishes while maintaining that sonic status quo that the band demonstrates their perpetually creative unease and curiosity. “Sectionals in Mourning” is pure chaos, with a jagged bassline that rumbles like it’s Dresden during the middle of a firebombing, with off-key, shouted harmonies enhancing the feeling of total destruction.
Every instrument and note endlessly clash in confusion and uncertainty, offering something jarring and unsettling that’s still profoundly consuming, like knowing the tornado will knock down your house and finding yourself stuck on the porch. Energy like that is what makes the band famous, and its existence is crucial to the band’s ability to operate the way they have.
“Fell –> H2O” is another example of how disjointed the band can be, stripping away the former’s appeal to leave nothing but the rotten core. The song centers around the clatter of a bassline that’s forgotten how to be smooth, remembering only noise and feedback, a guitar that rattles like a rusted chainsaw, and vocals muttered through a broken-down microphone. Together, they create a vortex of sonic annoyance, a creation that’s less a song and more a piece of terrible performance art. There is nothing profound or joyous in its chaos. It is, though, the next logical step in the post-punk spectrum: aural violence to, at last, finish off listeners. It sounds destructive and sinister, which it is, but it demonstrates a great truth of the band. They have to be able to be their most ruthless to see just how far their hooks have gone in, whether listeners can follow them wherever the noise may take them.
To those who can keep up, they’re treated to “ADD in Unison”. Here, the band has switched up their experimental and unpredictable approach. The cut begins just like its predecessors, with more raw, visceral bass (though this one is especially sharp-sounding), vocals equivalent to a drunken shouting match, and the added aid of huge, rollicking drums that mimic those of an ancient Viking warship. Then, out of the great, dark unknown, comes the herald of horns. They never stand out on their own, and their wail is almost lost in the typhoon of distorted guitar and pounding drums, yet their presence is a welcomed 180, a light sprinkling of something new, something organic that’s like a crack in the song’s spiked, black armor. It’s an almost insignificant decision, but the band’s dedication to its inclusion shows, more than anything, that they love keeping people on their toes.
With “7s”, the band steps up their unpredictability to a brand-new level by adding a touch of beauty to their relentless angst and vitriol. The track starts simple and builds into a concise groove, one that doesn’t do away with the volume, but adds a sheen of order to their otherwise anarchist-leaning tendencies. Toss in everything from concrete breaks and refrains to actual harmonizing (as light and whispery as it may be), and you’ve got something elegant and evocative in its simplicity. Whether to keep people continually guessing, to demonstrate their skill set, or even just to piss off the noise aficionados, this track is a final example that the band has come this far because every emotion, every musical decision is theirs to make as they see fit.
By engaging their simultaneous young-old dynamic, the band continually analyzes itself and its process. By working to move beyond that station and its accompanying connotations, they keep themselves alive with creative hunger. Either way, the listeners are left with a reunion that’s truly one in a million.
Essential Tracks: “Fell –> H2O”, “ADD in Unison”