Mission of Burma Profile (Boston Globe, 7.05.12)

Posted on February 10, 2013


Mission of Burma’s second act is more than a comeback



Mission of Burma’s 2004 comeback album, “ONoffON,” followed over 20 years of radio silence from the band, which broke up in 1983. The album came on the heels of a frenzied response to the band’s reunion concerts the year before, and seemed like a miraculous final visit on that trip down memory lane. “A new Burma album is out!” is something fans had only gotten to say once before, really.

Mission of Burma in its early days.

Mission of Burma in its early days. (DIANE BERGAMASCO)

Things have changed. The band — worldwide standard bearers of the jarring, dissonant post-punk genre for generations — has gone on to a steady second run that has lasted far longer than its storied early years. Burma has released three dense albums already, and its fourth, “Unsound,” is being released next Tuesday. The group escaped the realm of “comeback story” long ago, morphing now into something even weirder — a grown-up, modern fable of how to be a band.

“There are times where we haven’t played for a couple months,” says bassist/vocalist Clint Conley. “In those cases, it seems like the idea of performing for people is like asking me to steer a luxury cruise liner or something. It just feels so distant and alien.”

Conley works on the WCVB news program “Chronicle”; when strangers ask him “What do you do?,” his response is “television producer.” Drummer Peter Prescott just unveiled a new project called Mini-Beast, while engineer and tape loop manipulator Bob Weston (sporadically the bassist in Shellac) works regularly as an audio engineer in Chicago — everything from punk records to NPR’s “Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me.” Guitarist/singer Roger Miller is a full-time composer and performer with avant-garde ensemble Alloy Orchestra, M2, Sproton Layer, solo guitar work, and even some music premiered at the New England Conservatory.

Burma hardly tends to be the front and center concern for the members throughout the year, and that might be responsible for the carefree, alert, and ultimately engaging set of records that’s come out so far.

Burma’s music was never easy to digest. Miller’s grating guitar harmonies are often at odds with Conley’s hooks, and everyone’s vocals on different songs verge on Dada spoken-word more than something that might inspire a hearty singalong. But still, their early work had a singular focus. Lately, the records have expanded and loosened up. The 2006 release “The Obliterati,” in particular, busted out a number of pummeling curveballs and jabs like a bullying older brother, without ever giving the sense that the band is talking down from a mountain of wisdom. Burma is still just a group of guys looking under grimy rocks.

“It’s bizarre to be a reunited punk band in your 50s,” says Prescott. “When you’re younger, everything is such a rush of emotions and things that you’re doing that you’re just unconscious of it, being in a band. That’s what you have to do when you’re older, in a weird way — stay unconscious.”

“Unsound” starts off with a disjointed mess of no-wave and robot honky-tonk in “Dust Devil” and veers off in serpentine patterns. There are stripped down psychedelic trips (“Semi-Pseudo-Sort-of-Plan”), dissonant collages of chunky noise riffs (“This Is Hi-Fi”), and scorching anti-anthems (“Part the Sea”). In a twisted way, it’s the sound of a joyously creative band. As with all Burma material, it’s built from a hodgepodge of writing from everyone in the band. The visceral process of gluing it together is evident from every messy transition and haywire effects pedal.

The band has enjoyed significantly better reception since the reunion than in the old days (decades of myth-making can work wonders), and its members often find themselves in stark contrast to younger, stressed out bands.

“There’s always the new, hip band from Brooklyn and they’re all jaded, trying to push their first album already worried about their second,” says Conley. “We’re the ones who should be old and crusty and cynical, but we’re like, ‘This is a blast, you hipsters!’ ” Count Burma among those that already went a few rounds in that fight. “It was self-righteous conviction all the way, just banging our head against a world that didn’t really have much interest in what we were doing.”

In other words, they’ve landed on an ideal situation, in which worries are low and output is high and audience interest keeps extending.

“Believe me, I know that most of the world has no idea or interest in us at all,” says Conley. “But in our own little patch of the indie-verse, we seem to have staked our flag and claimed a little territory as our own and that’s a great feeling. It’s a cool thing.”