Spin Control

May 28, 2006



Mission of Burma, "The Obliterati" (Matador) ***1/2

In its first incarnation, Boston's hugely influential post-punk art-rock quartet -- onstage members Roger Miller on guitar, Clint Conley on bass and Peter Prescott on drums, plus behind-the-scenes tape-loop wizard Martin Swope -- delivered one brilliant studio EP (1981's "Signals, Calls and Marches") and one great album ('82's "Vs."), then split up. In 2004, they returned with Chicagoan Bob Weston in the role of Swope and the band's producer on a new album that avoided any hint of nostalgia, no easy feat when a group has become legendary during a 22-year break. "ONoffOn" was easily as strong as any of the original discs, but as a whole "The Obliterati" is even better.

The heart of the band's sound is still a mix of Prescott's Keith Moon-inspired lead drumming, Miller's snarling, fuzz- and feedback-drenched guitar and Conley's melodic counterpoint bass -- a combination that seemed as timeless in the early '80s as it does now -- augmented by Weston's deft ambient colorings. As in the past, the three musicians share songwriting and vocal duties, but it's no longer quite as easy to stereotype Conley as the "pop" guy, Miller as the "art" guy and Prescott as the drummer who gets a few credits per album. Uniformly ferocious and propulsive, all of the 14 tracks are also absurdly melodic, with several, including the opening "2wice" and "1001 Pleasant Dreams," matching the anthemic power of the older, unforgettable singles, "Academy Fight Song" and "That's When I Reach for My Revolver."

Freely flaunting their still razor-sharp wit, these now long-out-of-college rockers gleefully toss out indie-rock in-jokes, bragging of "eating dinner on Matador's dime" in "Spider's Web" and cracking that "Roxy Music came to save the world and all I got was this lousy T-shirt" in the album-closing "Nancy Reagan's Head," and paint multi-layered, impressionistic portraits of our surreal modern world, as on "Donna Sumeria," which comments on both the chaos in the Middle East and the avant garde underpinnings of the much-maligned disco movement, via a mid-section that quotes Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder's hypnotic "I Feel Love."

Few punk bands have ever had a second act as inspiring as their first. In that regard, Mission of Burma has already surpassed two of its own heroes, Wire and the Buzzcocks, and "The Obliterati" is a remarkable accomplishment powerful enough to make us believe they're just warming up.