Love hurts, but rock and roll can put you in the hospital. Take, for instance, Roger Miller of Boston's praised-to-high-hell Mission of Burma. Being one of the loudest bands of the original post-punk era was enough to blow out his eardrums, and the resulting tinnitus was a major factor in the band's breakup in 1983. What the fuck do you expect? Guitars are loud. Rock is hazardous.
Now, over two decades since the last blip on its EKG, Burma is back with ONoffON, the group's highly touted reunion album. People were falling all over themselves a couple years ago to catch one of the few comeback shows that Miller and company graced the U.S. with. Apparently, Miller now wears big, clunky, firing-range headphones when he plays. For all of this album's yawn-stuffed riffs and laggardly beats, though, he might as well hobble out on stage with a walker. Mission of Burma in its prime was unstoppable -- a wall of sound, a beast of the jungle, a font of brute, anthemic force that housed veins of artsy sentiment and delicate melody within its dense, feedback-toughened hide. But ONoffON is, well, an on-again, off-again affair. The sound is classic Burma, but it's predictably cleaner and clearer. There's meat on a few of these tracks -- the muscular "Hunt Again" is a prime example -- but instead of flexing, it just sort of hangs off the bone. Then there's downright embarrassing stuff like "Fever Moon," wherein Miller grumbles like someone's crabby, bedridden uncle, "Am I hot? Am I cold? When did this fever take hold?" Nurse!
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Also recently laid up with a new album and fresh injuries is Chicago's Challenger. The group's guitarist, Dave Laney (who, with bassist Al Burian, is also a member of the esteemed post-hardcore outfit Milemarker), fractured his collarbone recently when he was hit by a truck while working his day job as a bike messenger. How was this caused by playing underground rock? Well, if Laney were in some shitty band that sounded like Dashboard Confessional, he wouldn't have been working as a bike messenger to pay his bills, would he? Instead, Challenger's music is a mass of broken angles and contorted riffs as exacting as its main inspiration: Mission of Burma. But where ONoffON has some tunes but no power, Give People What They Want in Lethal Doses has the power but not the tunes. With fresh wounds and a moniker nicked from a blown-up space shuttle, you'd expect Challenger to make some pretty tough music -- which it does. Unfortunately, brawn alone can't get this album off the launch pad. Give People harvests the husk from vintage Burma but not much of the heart, not knowing how to transmute the purity and consistency of Miller and company's past work into anything but a monotone. Sadly, neither does Miller anymore. It's one thing to triumph in the face of bruises, illnesses, ass-whippings and scar tissue, and another to merely survive. Let that be a lesson: That which does not kill you won't necessarily make you stronger -- or rock any harder.