Mission of Burma

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Onoffon Review

by Mark Deming

This wasn't supposed to happen. After breaking up in 1983, Mission of Burma spent almost 20 years as the band who went away before they could get stale, run out of ideas, or lose their edge, but they weren't supposed to come back. No one figured them to re-emerge on-stage in 2002 for a series of reunion shows in which they would not only sound as strong as ever (if not stronger), but reaffirm themselves as one of America's great rock bands, an ensemble of uncommon intelligence, imagination, and force. But most startling of all, few could have guessed that Mission of Burma would return to the recording studio and emerge with an album that stands comfortably beside the striking recorded legacy they left behind in their earlier incarnation. First and foremost, Onoffon manages the not inconsiderable achievement of sounding like Mission of Burma -- a 22-year recording layoff has done nothing to blur the group's signature sound, and Roger Miller's crystalline shards of guitar, Clint Conley's melodic and propulsive bass, and Peter Prescott's inventive but muscular percussion appear to have aged not a day in the interim. But this isn't the work of a reconstituted band slipping back into an old formula -- cuts like "The Enthusiast," "The Setup," and "Fake Blood" are classic Burma, howling with energy and id, but the clanky, vaguely country undertow of "Nicotine Bomb," the skeletal textures of "Prepared," and the fretful calm of "What We Really Were" and "Max Ernst's Dream" reveal three musicians who are still adding fresh details to their sonic canvas. And while Bob Weston doesn't slavishly mimic the aural clouds of tape loops generated by Martin Swope (who opted not to participate in this reunion) during Burma's salad days, his sonic treatments (and non-intrusive production) serve the same function and mesh with the group's music with welcome grace. Though Onoffon doesn't quite top Burma's 1982 masterpiece, Vs. (remarkably, until now the band's only full-length studio album), it manages to sound like the more than worthy follow-up they could have cut a couple years later -- only with two decades of experience and musical detours informing its nooks and crannies. Onoffon is an album that neither embraces the past as empty nostalgia nor ignores the events of the past two decades -- it presents Mission of Burma reborn into the 21st century, as original and relevant as they've ever been, and their return is as welcome a surprise as anyone could hope for. Inexplicable, and gloriously so. [Analog loyalists take note: the two-LP vinyl edition of Onoffon includes a bonus track, a cracking cover of the Dils' classic "Class War."]

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