Were it not for the past two years, during which Mission of Burma proved that one of the most ferocious and visionary bands of the punk era could return after a 20-year layoff with the same fervor that made it so scary good in the first place, ''The Obliterati" might feel like a surprise mortar attack from nowhere, and everywhere.
In some ways, ''The Obliterati" (out tomorrow on Matador) still feels, and sounds, like an ambush, despite what we all now know about Burma: that the Boston outfit's return was not only plausible but necessary, perhaps inevitable. As Burma made clear on 2004's cobweb-clearing ''ONoffON," the band had no interest in cashing in on the cheap nostalgia of a mythologized age and picking up a few quick checks along the way. Just like that, Burma was back, louder than bombs and sounding like no one else.
What's most remarkable about ''The Obliterati" is that it is better than the band's startling ''comeback" album. The spiky old aggression and restless quest for catharsis (''Birthday," ''Let Yourself Go") are here, of course. But there's a wider scope and texture, a bit more light peeking out from the darkened corners this time around. There are also subtler shades of melodic expression (''13," ''Is This Where?") that haven't always been evident amid the claustrophobia, nihilism, and corroded psyches that informed the band's previous work.
The first thing we hear on the opening track, ''2wice," is drummer Peter Prescott bashing away at his kit like a call to arms. It's as if he's anxious to get going already, knowing what's in store. What sounds like an off-mike ''Go!" moments later seals the sense of urgency even before the band kicks in and singer-bassist Clint Conley delivers his opening query: ''Take a look inside/ What did you think you'd find?" A post-punk pop song, of all things, with Roger Miller's nifty electric guitar crashing and burning the tune down to its conclusion, vamping Townshend-style. Prescott, in on the joke, does his flashiest Keith Moon bit on the drum kit.
Such unhinged fun as well as fierce moments make up the bulk of ''The Obliterati," a disc that's equal parts mind, muscle, and musicality. With new millennium addition Bob Weston (a musician-engineer who's essentially assumed the sonic trickery duties that once fell to original Burma member Martin Swope), Mission of Burma is now firmly back among us where, clearly, it has always belonged. We shouldn't be surprised at how great, and essential, the band sounds.