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Mission of Burma - The Obliterati

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Artist: Mission of Burma

Album: The Obliterati

Label: Matador

Review date: May. 23, 2006

Starting in a firestorm of drums, charged with abrasive intelligence and vibrating, distorted energy, this second outing from the revived Mission of Burma is more intense and cohesive than OnOffOn, combining difficult structures with headlong aggression, mind-sticking melodies with joyful blurts of noise.

It might just last a few rounds with Vs., the band’s 24-year-old defining statement. The main thing that differentiates The Obliterati from first-wave Burma recordings is humor. It's hard to imagine the ascetics of "Dead Pool" or "New Nails" referencing Donna Summer, however obliquely, or writing a song about the "freaky size of Nancy Reagan's head." Here they are greyer, but also looser and less self-righteous. Age, it turns out, doesn't really have anything to do with removing your edge or turning down the volume; it teaches you not to take things so bloody seriously all the time.

As before, the three historic members of Burma split songwriting duties. Although they each bring a signature style – Miller abstract and multilayered, Conley more pop-leaning and Prescott fiercely, humorously punk – they seem to have converged a bit on The Obliterati, so that it is harder to distinguish one's songs from the others. Conley, who has, in the past, been responsible for the band's more melodic moments ("That's When I Reach for My Revolver" is his), has put significantly more muscle into his tunes, starting with the full-on fury of "2wice." This opening volley enters with a furious pounding, a clangor of guitars, an ultra-rhythmic attack that resounds in the pit of your stomach, viscerally claiming your attention. But, as is his wont, Conley slips a sweetness into the melody, a hooky inevitability in the "You go / I'll follow / You hide / I'll find you out / You dare / Find your way / You've got me dead to rights / I'm alive" chorus. There's an unexpectedly fragile fragment of pop tucked into the song's middle section, braced on either side by aggressive loudness.

Miller answers with the snarling, stop-start glory of "Spider's Web," a song that twists and turns and inverts itself into difficult patterns without ever losing its freight train momentum. There's a falsetto chorus above an annihilating riff, a ruptured and evil sounding guitar solo, and the same sort of falling-into-an-abyss yell that kicked off OnOffOn's "The Setup" – all aligned in perfect, headlong fury that long-term fans will immediately recognize. Yet Miller is also responsible for "Donna Sumeria," the album's oddest, funniest and most out-of-character cut, which lays the cymbal-slush disco beat and high-crooned chorus from "I Feel Love" over explosive post-punk climaxes and abstract verses about Mesapotamia.

And then there's Prescott who delivered one of OnOffOn's most memorable cuts, the mocking, surrealist "The Enthusiast." He's back with the abrasive "Let Yourself Go," its buzzsaw guitar riff running into irregularly-shaped intervals of discord and punctuated by giant power chords. "Period" is a majestic rock melody stripped to classic, straight-edge fury.

But if Miller's the intellectual, Conley's the melodist and Prescott's the punk prankster, how do you explain songs like "1001 Pleasant Dreams," where Miller's signature tremolo distortion is wrapped around an anthemic pop chorus and pock-marked by pounding drums? Or "Good, Not Great" which partakes of "The Enthusiast’s" frantic punk beat, but is unmistakably in Conley's voice. Or "The Mute Speaks Out," a monstrously heavy, orchestral trudge through shimmering distortion, credited to Prescott. It's as if the three songwriters have come together since the last record, recognizing each other's strengths and borrowing them for their own work.

And that, finally, is what makes The Obliterati so exciting. Last time, the surprise was that after 20 years of hiatus, the band was just as good as ever. This time, they're even better, more cohesive and confident, louder and funnier, still learning from life and each other, and using that experience to create ever more compelling music.

By Jennifer Kelly

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