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Remember Their Name

Bridge Burners: Eric Masunaga (from left), Dave Derby, Kevin March and Joan Wasser of the Dambuilders are making mainstream inroads with their new album.

Photo by Michael Miller

Switching from atonal experimentalism to a simpler pop aesthetic, the Dambuilders start to crawl out of the underground

By Bernice Yeung

THE DAMBUILDERS have such low name recognition that the experimental pop-music group should be relieved it's not running for office. Although the Dambuilders' 1994 single "Shrine" climbed onto Billboard's Top Ten Alternative list, few remembered who penned the passionate pop tune because it lacked an identifiable chorus.

With its current single, "Burn This Bridge," making frequent appearances on mainstream airwaves, the Honolulu-born, Boston-based Dambuilders might finally trigger the general public's radar. It helps, too, that DJs clearly back announce the song every time it's played.

A few years ago, the Dambuilders leaned more toward avant-garde "no-wave" music, fiddling with guitar feedback, electric violin squeals and chilling vocal shrieks. They converted noise into an on-the-fringe musical form in such releases as Encendedor (EastWest/1994) and Ruby Red (EastWest/1995), which roiled with untamed adrenaline. There is a rawness to both albums that, sadly, only a few people appreciate or understand; many a Dambuilders album sits in the sale racks, marked down to $4.99.

But their latest album, Against the Stars (Elektra), which angles away from dissonance, might serve as the Dambuilders' formal introduction to the mainstream. Though less abrasive than true fans are used to, Against the Stars still retains the Dambuilders' experimental mentality, which includes an inclination to layer intricate guitar or violin tracks over pop beats and riffs. The band has always negotiated the line between dissonance and tonality with studied precariousness. But where older Dambuilders material intentionally eschewed the expected, the band no longer disdains the simple pop sensibility.

"Sometimes you can get the same crazed feeling across without having to be so dissonant all the time," electric violinist/vocalist Joan Wasser says. "Until now, I personally hadn't really known how to get those feelings across without being insane."

"There's a skill to writing a pop song, though a lot of people are in denial of that," vocalist/bassist Dave Derby adds. "We've learned to write pop songs and art songs, and we've become a better band because of it."

WITH THE NEW ALBUM, the Dambuilders stand on firmer, more melodic ground. "Burn This Bridge," for example, actually has a recognizable (and catchy) chorus, as opposed to a purely instrumental refrain or a single repeated riff, which has been the band's tactic in the past. And there might even be a standard guitar chord progression in there somewhere, instead of atonal note assemblies.

Against the Stars is certainly smoother than the Dambuilders' other albums--the difference between driving a mufflerless Volkswagen and a recently tuned Jaguar. But while the Dambuilders have shifted into cruise control, Against the Stars is no less complex or diverse.

As always, Wasser's spirited playing and guitarist Eric Masunaga's unconventional note-bending style add dimension to the music. The band also has a tendency to pepper its smart, electric-charged pop with four-note guitar squawking and perkily plucked violin strings.

"Discopolis" from Against the Stars represents probably the best compromise between the Dambuilders' old-school atonality and newfound melodic tendencies. Derby and drummer Kevin March establish a disco beat while Masunaga and Wasser collaborate on near-dissonant string instrumentals. Wasser also sings on the track, giving the song a haunting, futuristic sound.

There are no lyrics to the chorus; indeed, there are no comprehensible lyrics throughout the entire song. "Discopolis" would work better as a soundtrack for, say, a space-age Swingers, but still, it's got enough rhythm and melody to survive as a pop song.

The Dambuilders' ability to wander into uncharted musical territory and hop on the pop bandwagon has evoked some confusion among listeners. A KOME DJ played the Dambuilders' single and then mused, "What're we doing playing this indie rock?" But the Dambuilders aren't indie--they've been signed to a major label for four years. The band just transcends the generally understood pop aesthetic.

The band's willingness to adhere--at least loosely--to a standard pop formula is Against the Stars' mainstream selling point. And though the Dambuilders do carefully deviate from clichéd verse-chorus structure, longtime fans may see the album as the band's resignation to the creatively uneducated masses. But by unclenching their stubborn grip on exclusive unconventionality, the foursome have opened up even more territory for exploration.

"To all the hard-core indie people we're sellouts, and with mainstream America, we're indie rock--but who cares?" Wasser demands indignantly, "It's music!"

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From the Aug. 27-Sept. 3, 1997 issue of Metro.

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