ON: While recording Vs. in 1982, Mission of Burma may not have known that they would break up soon after, thanks to guitarist Roger Miller's worsening tinnitus. But the album closer, "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate," sounds like a prediction of their sudden demise. Penned by bassist and hook machine Clint Conley, the song is a simple (for them) barre-chord raver, free of Miller's chancy feedback flights. (Think Keith Moon at an early Wire rehearsal.) At 2:02, midchord, midfill, mideverything, the recording goes dead; tape stopped, plug pulled. At 2:03, the ghost-printed echo of one of Peter Prescott's idful yells from the drum throne—then, two decades of collective silence.
Off: But not individual silence. Miller tottered between guitar-based solo records, when his ears could bear it, and his pre-Burma experimental roots. His bread and butter is as part of Alloy Orchestra, performing original scores to silent films. Prescott pursued a Career in Rock, the title of one of the six albums his band Volcano Suns released on Homestead, SST, and Touch & Go; he later fronted the undersung Kustomized. Conley emerged at rare intervals, appearing on Yo La Tengo's debut and on a 1994 7-inch with Miller, as the drumless duo Wrong Pipe. Just before Burma's return, Conley formed consonant with Come's Chris Brokaw to document an unexpected return to songwriting. Mythmakers skip these bits.
ON: Burma's fitful re-emergence began with rapturously received Boston and New York shows in January 2002. Twenty-odd dates later, it plateaus with ONoffON, rolled out by Matador in a manner befitting a Rock-Historical Event. An SACD version is available for the Sharper Image set, and heavy-gauge analog-mastered shellac for the Ludd Gang. (Shit-hot vinyl extra: a cover of the Dils' "Class War.") The title states their coping strategy for expectations they never expected: Pretend they've never been away, because there's nothing to have been away from. Time stopped when that tape did, now it's started again, and this is the follow-up to Vs. they'd have recorded in a parallel universe circa 1983 or '84.
Off: Like fun it is. Even if the music hadn't changed, which it has, its meaning in 2004 would have. The groove-torquing and many-chambered structures of nearly everything Burma recorded aside from the oft-covered "hits" ("Academy Fight Song," "That's When I Reach for My Revolver") may never be pop, but the difficulties seem less willful now, partly because of the band's own accruing influence. If Burma are post-anything, they're post-themselves—which must be a trip. Also, ex-member Martin Swope's tape-loop manipulations—now executed by new recruit Bob Weston—so alienating to the hardcore-punk crowds they faced in the '80s, can now be heard as look-ma-no-laptop handicraft. The core trio, it seems, gave Weston the option of Swope-ifying their live sound digitally, but accredited electrical engineers do love to tinker.
ON: Charging chordal intro, Miller's jagged phrasing ("I'm asking . . . why do I! . . . act this way?"), a Pierre Henry-meets-Hendrix tape-and-tremelo duel: "The Set-Up" is the perfect let's-show-'em opener, crushing any concerns about the band's physical stamina. (This goes double for the penultimate, neck-snapping "Playland.") Throughout, Prescott makes fewer concessions to conventional timekeeping than ever, and the production is documentary enough to serve as an advertisement for the band's live work, but Burma are no more audio verité purists than they were the first time around. Weston's role aside, Miller's strings arrangements cushion two songs, and the electric-acoustic combo-strum of "Dirt" evokes the band's relatively glossy 1979 debut single.
Off: Completists will note that some of the most immediate tracks rework older material. "Dirt" appeared on the live The Horrible Truth About Burma; "Playland" and "Hunt Again" date from unpolished early-'80s sessions released to the faithful during the lean years. "The Set-Up" and one other are repurposed from a 1991 disc by Miller's solo project No Man. Their current recordings burn, but of the new songs, the best are often the subtlest: "Falling," a bad-dream duet with ex–Throwing Muse and fellow Bostonian Tanya Donnelly, and "What We Really Were," co-written, like "Mica" from Vs. and much consonant material, with poet Holly Anderson. Notable exception: "The Enthusiast."
ON: In 2004, Burma seem less mannered and more willing to out themselves as a rock band, little concerned with what's avant and what's not. "Nicotine Bomb" is a clattering two-step that's also a pop jewelbox, making room for thin shims of Weston's trumpet before ending too soon on the Beatles Chord. (You know, the major sixth that ends "She Loves You.") The mock- heroic chorus of "Wounded World," more solo-Miller salvage, is surrounded by a riff from the "Barracuda"/"Welcome to the Jungle" extended family. It's as close to a groove as they've ever come.
Off: The song's anti-imperialism is well-intentioned: "Another year, another friend or foe/Burn their cities, scorch the earth below." But Burma have always been more effective, and more moving, when their meanings are less message-driven. 1980's once abstract "This Is Not a Photograph" snapped into focus for me last month. The endlessly repeated title is what my outrage wishes it could tell itself, in the face of visible evidence of what we pay our military to do. The new lines I keep hearing topically, however they're intended, are Prescott's: "In the artificial light . . . it gushes out/How can you tell when it's fake blood?"
ON: Hell, maybe ONoffON is a Rock- Historical Event after all. That doesn't mean it's always the one Mission of Burma's core audience anticipated. Who would hardly have predicted—or tolerated—the undistorted intimacies of Conley's "Prepared" in 1982. Still, the record ends exactly as you'd expect, with a victory lap around "Absent Mind" that gradually decompresses into a squalling, pitch-shifted freakout. Again, the last sound you hear is Prescott, half off-mike, but now he's laughing, and there's no power cut. Last time, the band quit because they had to; this time, they sound like they don't know how to stop, or whether they ever want to again.
Mission of Burma play Neumo's at 6 p.m. with Kinski. Sat., June 5. $18 adv./$20.