When we think of bands from the early '80s doing the same kind of thing they've been doing since the early '80s, it usually has a negative connotation. Most bands from the early '80s, however, are not Mission of Burma. The Sound the Speed the Light, the band's third album since reuniting after a 20-plus-year hiatus, is not on the same level as its predecessors. Nonetheless, it serves as a fantastic primer of what has made Mission of Burma such a beloved band over the past 30-odd years.
It's important to regard Mission of Burma in the larger musical context. The Sound the Speed the Light lacks the vitality of Vs., the joyousness of ONoffON, or the musical audacity of The Obliterati, which I still consider the band's best album. The Sound the Speed the Light is less of a new direction than a collection of all the traits that have made Mission of Burma great: the application of classical (post)-modernist tropes to pop music, finding new ways to mix and match traditional blues/pop/rock conventions, all without any pretentiousness or (unwarranted) cynicism.
Like most Mission of Burma albums, it's easier to pick out noteworthy moments on The Sound the Speed the Light than on individual tracks. Nonetheless, it's fantastic to see the mocking of booze-bro excesses in "1, 2, 3 Party!!!" followed by the vicious socially conscious hangover of "Possession." The Sound the Speed the Light has a well-thought-out track order, and the opening pair is not the only time when multiple tracks follow a similar thought process. There's "SSL '83," which recalls the band's more popular tracks, like "(That's When) I Reached for My Revolver"; and "Nicotine Bomb," with a distinct lack of a nostalgic attitude. The real highlight is "Comes Undone," which would be a fantastic farewell should Mission of Burma never record again. Regardless, it would be as fantastic a swan song for Generation X, a generation that claims to dislike swan songs, as any.
The Sound the Speed the Light pushes the same boundaries that Mission of Burma has always pushed, and no doubt it will lose points for not pushing any new boundaries. Of course, Mission of Burma has earned the right to play it a bit safer.
With The Sound of the Speed of Light, the band’s third album for Matador since their early-2000s comeback, Mission of Burma prove definitively that there is a difference between a reunion and a really long hiatus. Continuing to sound as urgent and vital as they did over a quarter of a century ago, they handily put to rest any fears that a Weirdness or Jericho might be lurking in their future catalog. The Sound of the Speed of Light, due in early October, posits that decades-long gap that separated releases as a necessary stage in the band’s creative development rather than your standard break up.