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Burning Bridges - "Burning Bridges"

The gifted, expatriate San Diego band Burning Bridges delivered a fine but all-too-brief set at the Bacchanal last Saturday night, where they opened for a suddenly long-in-tooth British folk-rock sextet, Fairport Convention. Although Burning Bridges have existed since 1985, won 91X's "Battle of the California Originals" two years ago, and enjoy a respectable following in various pockets of the county, until Saturday they were virtual newcomers to me. I can only explain this by saying that in the last couple of years, some colleagues and inveterate nightclub fixtures have been dangerously liberal in their praise for Burning Bridges. The typical music enthusiast tends to become very protective of his or her favorite artists; and unqualified compliments for a group will always make me wary. But such diffidence can harden into indifference and, eventually, indolence and procrastination ("I'll get to them when I have the time"). It is always a pleasure, however, to rectify a mistake.

It was undeniable, upon receipt of their new eponymous EP, that Burning Bridges stand at a demonstrable distance from their more visible local peers. The kick-off of the six-song collection is, as was their performance at the Bacchanal, anchored by a tightly packed funk riff ("False Alarm") that bolsters the band's tempestuous ambiance. This hook-laden tune is a wise opening selection, showing off the unit's confidence, panache, and instrumental capabilities. Both their EP and their live set at the Bacchanal were clever, variegated, and impeccably executed and paced.

It should be mentioned that the Bacchanal set was also ludicrously short (approximately half an hour). This could have been a consequence of trying vainly to cajole a sparse crowd that seemed beset by communal apoplexy. Crowd reaction is a by-product of concert attendance that has always seemed to be irrelevant. But since Burning Bridges play a panorama of volatile, highly kinetic music, it is plausible that the group requires a substantial degree of audience feedback. Fortunately, the players have enough professional polish to overcome an apparent lack of audience involvement and still perform impressively.

Burning Bridges' music is full of globe-trotting nuances, inspirations, and references. And it is precisely this cultural cross-pollination that makes them so thoroughly fascinating and entertaining. The integration of exotic instrumentation and stylistic idiosyncracies from South Africa, the Caribbean, and other Afro-Hispanic nations into a basic rock set-up reflects the growing interest in pop strains emanating from other world communities. Noteworthy dabblings into musical history and esoterica by the likes of Paul Simon, David Byrne, Brian Eno, Robert Palmer, and Peter Gabriel have produced a slew of works that, though not unfaulted, are tantalizing for the chances they take.

Burning Bridges operate in a similar vein, ingesting and embellishing their melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically vivid material with pithy breaks, textural variances, syncopation, bass vamps reminiscent of Miles Davis's early-70's work, vaguely Midwestern figures and guitar harmonies, and colliding blocks of dissonance that provide unpredictable surges of drama. The band has been compared to current Talking Heads (and King Crimson and Sun Ra as well). While the comparisons have some validity, in that both bands are gathering influences from the same far-off musical shores, Burning Bridges, thankfully, sidestep David Byrne's increasingly unbearable vocal shenanigans and overwrought arrangements.

Lead singers Andrew Vereen and Cynthia Antillon are strong and emphatic, and Antillon is a provocative visual presence -- striking but not upstaging. The polyphony and counterpoint between the harmonic caretakers (guitarists Vereen and Don Story, bassist Martin Doll) and percussionists Robert Montoya and Marcos Fernandes adhere to a well-rehearsed regimen of disciplined playing. In the process, they might sacrifice impetuous spontaneity, but the result is a completely satisfying, full-bodied amalgam of what they label "world beat/ethno-pop."

Burning Bridges, like the similar but less engaging Borracho y Loco, realize the importance of broadened parameters to sustain a healthy, potent denominator for players and consumers. They may never be the most renowned group to arise from this dozing musical town. But if a catholic, perspicacious understanding of how to meld cultural opposites into a precision-tooled synthesis counts for anything, the Burning Bridges have a bright future.

     - Stephen Esmedina, San Diego Reader

In the nearly three years that they have been performing locally, Burning Bridges have failed to make much more than a ripple in the San Diego original music scene. They won 91X's "Battle of the California Originals" in 1987 and have been written up in Rockbill, the San Diego Union, and the Times-Advocate, but they remain unappreciated by local fans, even as they gain critical approval. The reason for this is simple: the band is too ethnic, too esoteric, and too downright weird for Joe Santee to relate to.

This town's musical successes have been almost exclusively performers of roots-rock or metal/hard rock. Burning Bridges' style, as leader Marcos Fernandes puts it, is "world-beat ethno-pop influenced by African, Caribbean, and underground music." The Bridges' sound is very percussive, with a line-up that includes two guitars, bass, and three percussionists who utilize drums, marimba, and a variety of odd-looking bangable things the names of which even the band members don't know. It is also fluid, danceable, and highly melodic ("Yayo," an original, could be a hit).

Burning Bridges are also one helluva lot of fun to watch. There is a refreshing lack of "tough-guy" posturing; instead, the musicians beam idiotic grins, bound about like wired lunatics, and exude a genuine sense of musical ecstasy. Vocalist/percussionist Cynthia Antillon is a particular delight as she shakes maracas, dances like there's a fire underfoot, and hoots it up with wild abandon.

But perhaps what most sets them apart from your average local band is the fact that they are an ethnically and sexually integrated unit. "That mix is one of the things I like most about this band," says Fernandes. "We don't take hard political stands, but I think [the integration] says a lot. And we really get along well. It's almost scary sometimes."

Burning Bridges would no doubt fare better in the more open-minded Bay Area, where such bands as the Looters and Slack have large, loyal followings. But they are determined to stay in San Diego ("For some reason, I like it here," says Fernandes), where unreceptive audiences, lack of management, and fewer venues could keep them mired in relative obscurity.

It would be a shame to see them fade away, as so many others have, due to the sheer hopelessness that is endemic to local acts that play their own music. Burning Bridges are definitely one of the more original and creative bands that San Diego has to offer, and with persistence, they could have it all pay off for them. For those with a spirit of musical adventure, the band will perform at Rio's nightclub on Monday, November 21.

     - Buddy Seigal, San Diego Reader

Now in regular release, Burning Bridges' fledgling but estimable debut album singes with the authority that makes their selective performances so special. Generally, when a reviewer stoops to the huckster's ploy of branding a band "seasoned," it's a not-too-subtle euphemism for withered, dried-up, etc.

As far as I know, Burning Bridges haven't given up the nightmare of evolution beyond this seaside resort dump; geographical stasis is none of my business, but since there have been no complaints concerning musical lethargy, they must still be the best representatives of "world beat" ca-chunk on dis zide, mon.

Too much praise has been heaped upon erstwhile Talking Heads ostrich David Byrne for his dilettante indulgences in South American and Ahfreekahn riffs, chord substitutions, and gimmicks. (Later with Byrne; he is a cipher and a decipher. His art consists of tapping into the next thing before it becomes wearisome.)

Other evident influences -- Soweto session players, Milton Nascimento, and post-Discipline King Crimson -- raise this record above the norm. There are the splendid contrasts of high sharps (the excellent Cynthia Antillon) and the droll but apt flats (Andrew Vereen). As they do in person, the featured performers and accompanists achieve what they are called on to do with sublime grace.

The songs announce exactly what they are about ("False Alarm," "Bad Machines," "Big House"). As usual, polemics in a pop band cannot probe very deep. But in this case, since it is such a B-plus/A-minus record musically, we can forgive them their lack of polemical acumen.

     - Stephen Esmedina, The San Diego Reader

Burning Bridges' eponymous debut album, financed by the band and released last April (available locally at all major music stores), is receiving heavy college radio airplay across the country, from KTOO in Juneau, Alaska, to WUCF in Orlando, Fla.; from WBMB in New York City to KCSB in Santa Barbara.

The album is an unqualified tour-de-force from a band whose opulent layers of sound command immediate attention. From the O'Jays-inspired funk of "False Alarm" to the joyous African melody of "Words Are Cheap," "Burning Bridges" is impressive from start to finish.

     - Buddy Seigal, San Diego Union Tribune

David Byrne began dabbling with Third World rhythms in 1980, then quickly abandoned them for a homespun pop sound throughout the 1980s. Bands like Burning Bridges continued and perfected the experiment in a music now called World Beat. It is now safe to say that the Talking Heads recent releases are reminiscent of Burning Bridges. This 6-song EP can be roughly divided into two styles. Four songs- "Society" and the three on side B- employ this fusion of Caribbean and African rhythms. The other two- "False Alarm" and "Bad Machines" are funky '70s-era soul songs complete with one flat-picked guitar riff repeated almost to the point of irritation. The lyrics address social concerns with interesting twists. "Bad Machines," reminiscent of Oingo Boingo's "Home Again," has a great line: "Bad machines don't know they're bad." Andy Vereen and Cynthia Antillon sing a distinctive male/female co-lead on most tunes, shining on the choruses but sometimes lacking energy on the verses. In general, I feel the arrangements lack dynamics.

The guitar solos on "Bad Machines" and "Society" are really creative and quite welcome over the crisp, often monotonous chink-chink of the rhythm guitar. Martin Doll's melodic bass playing is very precise and full. The combination of drums and percussion fill out the rhythm section with a very tight and danceable backbone. The vocals are well organized. A nice brass section would be a great addition to these recordings.

Somehow this record lacks the energy that this band tends to have live. I'd like to hear more of the rhythm section out front with a little less guitar and vocals. A raw, more live sound would make this record 10 times stronger.

The jacket is white with six striking black tribal masks, giving a clue to what's inside. A lyrics sheet would have been nice.

Burning Bridges released this collection last year on cassette. They have gone on to create a nice vinyl package for the rest of the world to experience. The band must be commended for the talent displayed in both songwriting and performance. The only thing really missing in the recording is a bit of energy.

     - Francisco Ciriza, San Diego Music

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