The key to Mission Of Burma’s remarkable resurrection over the past decade isn’t that the band sounds young today, 30 years after originally breaking up—it’s that the band has always sounded old, or at least like old souls. Burma’s output from the early ’80s was born cracked, ragged, eroded, and corroded, even as it warmed the cold tones of post-punk for the coming indie-rock movement. When Burma came kicking back to life with 2004’s ONoffON, it was as if the middle-aged group had finally grown into its own crust; 2006’s The Obliterati and 2009’s The Sound The Speed The Light only solidified the comeback. Unsound continues that cranky streak with little variation, but where the previous comeback albums have roared, Unsound feels dull, uneven, and a little bored.
The tunes are still there—mostly. “Second Television” slashes its way into a jittery thicket of jangle, while the aptly named “ADD In Unison” ties a knot of loose noodling and jerky riffing. But in both cases, the songs are marred by pudding-like production—not to mention the increasingly superfluous tape manipulations of the group’s most recent member, Bob Weston. The fact that Weston, a lauded and experienced recording engineer, would let this muddy mess get released is startling. On “Semi-Pseudo-Sort-Of Plan” and “Sectionals In Mourning,” the vocals are submerged beneath wads of swirling, deadening murk. Instead of the wall of sound of the group’s heyday, listeners get a wet towel.
But the fault isn’t all in the production. “This Is Hi-Fi” relies on droning samples and whispers to impart that old Burma mystique, but it gets tedious quickly. The wah-pedal slovenliness of “Fell—>H2O” is entirely dispensable. The band’s melodies, once clipped and barking, are now allowed to meander and wheeze. The disc picks up in the second half, though; “Part The Sea” almost entirely overcomes its washed-out sonics with an electric urgency, and tracks like “7’s” and “What They Tell Me” strike a familiarly thrilling balance between harmony, howling, and haggard art-punk. Things end on a cheeky note with the sarcastically titled “Opener”—but the joke goes south fast. Almost entirely instrumental, it’s a hookless, passionless jam littered with a few listless shouts. The song ends with the chant, “Forget what you know / Forget what you know.” To a certain degree, Unsound makes it seem like Mission Of Burma has begun to do exactly that.