Burma Extends Second Act, Refines Aural Assault

In the years after the explosion of punk, the underground was left with a challenge: Keep up the energy, but make it new. Plenty responded by playing faster and louder. Mission of Burma, a Boston band from the early 80’s, followed that approach, but the impulse was less about heightening confrontation and more about intensifying the music’s abstract elements.

Though their set lists included some infectious anthems, Burma brought a new brutalism to rock music. With hammering, mechanical rhythms, atmospheric tape loops and dense blasts of guitar played at punishing decibel levels, they built a jagged wall of sound. Hearing it was like hitting your skull against it, though dissonances, abrupt changes and disorienting time signatures complicated the headbanging.

Punk battled against complacency; Burma went further and assailed the idea of physical comfort.

The band called it quits after just an EP and a full-length (and some damaged ears), but it exerted a lasting influence. Two decades later, Burma reunited for some live dates and a follow-up album nobody expected, and the new music was as powerful and relevant as when Reagan sat in the White House. By now, the second coming has endured longer than the first, and Burma’s latest record, The Obliterati (Matador), further cements its status as one of those rare bands that can step out of history and pick up convincingly where it left off.

This is Burma’s rawest, most severe work to date—a coarser grade of sandpaper than even the classic 80’s recordings. If there’s a weakness in those earlier efforts, it’s in stretches where guitarist Roger Miller’s frenetic, full-volume strumming and drummer Peter Prescott’s relentless battering sound flat coming out of the stereo. On The Obliterati, the guitar cuts through more like a series of sharp peaks and valleys than just a blur of noise. The drums are acutely defined, capturing everything from the bristling edge of the cymbals to the huge, hollow, speaker-abusing boom of the kick drum.

The latest incarnation hits harder sonically, but there are still monotonous spells. “1001 Pleasant Dreams” never escapes from a repetitive call-and-response rut. The gothic dirge of “13,” despite its cello accompaniment, can’t lift out of its leaden tempo and sinking melody. And some of the lyrics are mouthfuls of polemic.

But the strongest songs on this disc stand comfortably alongside anything the band has produced. “2wice,” the album’s opener, starts with a deep, primal thumping, then breaks suddenly into bright, thrashing chords. Clint Conley digs into his bass strings so forcefully they’re ready to snap, and his vocals alternate between a menacing, street-fighting chant and a soaring chorus melody. “2wice” rivals Mr. Conley’s “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver,” the band’s most famous single, for catchiness and urgency—it’s disillusionment distilled in a three-and-a-half-minute pop song.

“Spider’s Web” and “Let Yourself Go” spotlight fierce, automatic-rifle stutters of guitar and tense, jittery rhythms that threaten to spin out of control. It’s a racket aptly described by the title of another track: “Careening With Conviction.” The lyrics to that song, which Mr. Miller and Mr. Conley trade back and forth, convey a punk ethos that courts nihilism but persists all the same. Mr. Miller howls, his voice slipping in and out of a vulnerable falsetto: “Who’s gonna hear me when I call? / Someone’s locked out in the hall / It’s me, I am.” Mr. Conley’s answer is no answer: “I never get the message. / It never comes. / I only hear the howling wind.”

After all these years, Mission of Burma is still pounding on the door, and we definitely hear the message.

Off Course

The Walkmen is a band that’s always lingered in the shadow of bigger bands: Whether it was the Strokes or Interpol, they were either not as worshipped by fans or not as coddled by the critics. And while Bows + Arrows (2004) did much to dispel the notion of a band bobbing in the choppy wake of others, A Hundred Miles Off, their third full-length, does not.

Let’s just say the Walkmen won’t have any trouble getting future gigs on The O.C.

A Hundred Miles Off opens with “Louisiana,” a breezy calypso-like lilt that immediately upends the raw emotion of Bows + Arrows and could easily fill the tinny speakers of any beachside bar. Hamilton Leithauser sings, “Louisiana / Come Go Away With Me …. If I listened to my head / I never would have come / It’s been two days without it / Just sleeping in the sun.” To that, he yells, “Hey!” It all ends in a Jimmy Buffett haze of piano slides and Mexican horns.

As the album’s title suggests, this is uncharted waters for the typically dour Walkmen.

But what follows is not a full-scale overhaul of their sound, but rather an intense cultivation of déjà vu. By the end of the fourth track, one has already spotted a Coldplay-like crescendo, an Interpol introduction and 10 other Walkmen songs that succeeded where these fall short. (Mr. Leithauser, however, continues his transformation into Bob Dylan—vocally, of course, not lyrically—which adds a welcome reedy texture.)

It’s an album of misdirection (that title again) while they fumble for what’s next — the fumbling is typified by the uninspired punk lament “This Job Is Killing Me.”

What’s encouraging is that they do stumble upon some great songs. “Tenley-Town” makes several shades of old sound fresh with a layer of jubilant handclapping and an inspired, soaring bit of harmony.

The one song that rises above all the others is “All Hands and the Cook,” a deliciously discomfiting space ballad. It’s Mr. Martin at his plaintive, angry best: “You don’t like it. / Won’t you tell me.” In the background, the bass drum thumps hypnotically and you’re transported to someplace new and old at the same time, a place where the Walkmen have taken you before, but never in this way. This song stands as the sole inheritor of the promise of Bows + Arrows. Not surprisingly, it’s the favorite song of at least one band member: “I think it sounds like our next record will sound,” says Walter Martin in the press release.

One can only hope.

—Jake Brooks Burma Extends Second Act,  Refines Aural Assault