BY MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times
Last Modified: Sep 26, 2012 06:20PM
Second chances, second acts, second winds – They are narratives that have driven rock band reunion albums and tours for years.
But what happens when that second chapter is no longer a chance to temporarily cash in but the opening to an entirely new phase for the band to make music that rivals, and in some ways surpasses, the early days?
Mission of Burma, the art-punk band from Boston beloved for its brawny and unpredictable music, has now lasted longer and released more albums than the three years they existed in the postpunk era of the early 1980s.
The band’s latest album, “Unsound” (Fire Records), is its fifth overall and fourth since they originally reunited in 2004. Yet the 18-year break since the band’s breakup proved fortuitous because the new album, like the recent others, shows the band more creatively engaged than ever.
“We exist on some sort of rock band netherworld. I suppose technically it is still a reunion every time we finish a round of touring and putting a record out because there’s never an assumption that we’re going to continue. Never,” says Peter Prescott, the band’s drummer and one of three vocalists and songwriters.
Although the Boston band is included in the first wave of art-minded 1980s postpunk bands like Gang of Four, the Mekons and Pere Ubu, Mission of Burma expanded its boundaries widely by incorporating elements of 1960s psychedelics, free jazz, British pop and noise, becoming a pivotal influence on bands like R.E.M., Sonic Youth, Superchunk, Yo La Tengo and others one decade later.
“Unsound” continues the band’s adventuresome instincts; with auxiliary member Bob Weston of Chicago’s Shellac charged with providing tape loops, the band combines melody, bursts of experimentation and primal energy on songs that range from psych-rock anthems (“7’s”) to heavily rhythmic experiments (“This Is Hi Fi”) to power-chord rock (“Second Television”). Each song results from the adventuresome interplay between Prescott, guitarist and vocalist Roger Miller and bassist and vocalist Clint Conley, a trio that capitalizes on instinctive left turns into dissonance and unexpected waves of melodic rock.
“There’s no room for going on autopilot,” Prescott says. “When everyone brings in individual songs, they’re beaten up and put back together by the whole band. No one brings in something they feel will be just OK. No one wants to be just OK.”
That fierce commitment in the studio is also one of Mission of Burma’s primary assets onstage, where they have a reputation for live shows that rocketed by the band’s take-no-prisoners style of energy to their performance.
Prescott, who is 54, says the band members are well aware of their age (“you can’t get around that issue”), which he says they take as a challenge.
“When we play live, people are shocked we are the ages we are and we play the way we do,” he says. “But it has to be that way. There’s very little more depressing to hear an elderly version of the band you loved as a kid. To compensate, I admit we probably even push it even harder. There’s a tendency for us to be more brutal, putting more twists in a song and not pull punches lyrically. We know we’ll never have a chance to do this again so you might as well be in there 150 percent, otherwise what’s the point?”
One reason Mission of Burma has hit its groove with its audience over the past decade is because it came from an era of underground rock that is now cherished for its genuine alternative edge to the mainstream, a dynamic that is now blurred in the current digital age. Prescott says the new generation of bands that sound too comfortable and fail to make adventuresome choices or push themselves to the brink “is slightly confusing.”
“I’m shocked at the nature of indie rock these days because the indie rock bands I grew up with and listened to in the 1980s and 1990s had a full of a lot more charge to them,” he says.
His exceptions: The Future of the Left, from Wales, and F-ed Up, from Toronto, although it’s too soon to tell if either would survive a lengthy hiatus and sound just as vital.
“Probably the best part about that [time] gap is we didn’t burn out on each other and we didn’t burn out on the style that we formulated,” Prescott says. “It allowed us to return with absolutely fresh eyes.”