Don Caballero


American Don

Don Caballero —- essentially octopus-limbed drummer Damon Che and a rotating crew of guitarists -— began life as a Breadwinner-inspired math-metal band; but they kept experimenting after that, shedding players, riffs and excesses until they'd perfected the hyper-technical rock minimalism that today has become their trademark. At this point, no other mathematically inclined group can touch Don Cab—and if you think that's just hype, well, then chew on American Don for a spell. Forget that founding guitarist Mike Banfield has quit the band; now, thanks to a sampler pedal, Banfield's finger-tapping foil, Ian Williams, can play two-plus intricate parts at once. Likewise for Eric "Emm" Topolsky—Williams' foil in Storm and Stress—whose pedal lets him simultaneously imply rhythms and hammer out waves of ambient sound from his bass (see "The Peter Criss Jazz," the band's subtlest track ever). Add to this Che's mega-polyrhythmic skills, and you've got a power trio in the most literal sense: Don Cab not only make three instruments sound like nine; they pack more interesting sound into each album than most bands can fit into a career.
(Originally published in Alternative Press)

What Burns Never Returns

With a structural foundation that shifts as much as drummer Damon Che's rhythms, it is difficult for the listener to build a framework from which to make sense of this instrumental music. To the uninitiated, the guitars sound as if they are falling over themselves, chirping, chiming and clanging in a rapid spiral of tapping fingers and bending strings. What sounds like Damon and his drum kit being tossed down a flight of stairs is him playing any number of rhythms simultaneously. The best place to find solid ground is with the bass player, even though he can hardly be trusted. Like free jazz, where the structures are so involved and the playing so intuitive, the music often sounds totally individualized and random, Don Caballero's pieces depend on the interaction of its participants. What sounds random is composed or at least loosely structured in a way to invite a certain set of responses. Much of Don Caballero's music may be spontaneously composed. I don't know. Part of its beauty lies in the blurred lines which separate improvisation from a written piece. Either way, it doesn't matter. What a beautiful edifice, our Caballero.
(Touch and Go) - Steven M. Brydges [taken from Mod Magazine]

The difference between Don Caballero's 1993 debut album, For Respect, and 1995's double-LP set Don Caballero 2 was so great that the Pittsburgh group might as well have grown new limbs in the interim. Where Respect layered heady prog-metal riffs over Damon Che's ultra-complex drumming, 2 made all the instruments equal: Instead of being spiny, post-Breadwinner metal, it had become an assortment of weird, elongated movements marked by brain-bending time signatures and an advanced sense of polyphony. But in the three years since, Don Cab have done little more than overcome dormancy and welcome back original bassist Pat Morris, offering just one portentous single as proof of their musical growth. Apparently they've just been waiting to drop the bomb.
What Burns Never Returns' opener, "Don Caballero 3," begins with the same spiked drum groove that closed 2's final track, "No One Gives A Hoot About FAUX-ASS Nonsense." But then it lifts the curtain, revealing a tighter sense of structure and group interplay than either of its forerunners did. Don Cab now seem to be working in miniatures—repeating and contrasting small, complex figures for a few measures before bending them into new forms. The gigantic riffs, the finger-tapped guitar duels and the absurd song titles (e.g., "Delivering the Groceries at 138 Beats Per Minute") remain classic Don Cab tools, but the overriding attention to detail falls (unintentionally?) between the early-'70s minimalism of Philip Glass and the post-rock maximalism of citymates Meisha. Song titles and track listings are helpful but not necessary, as Burns works equally well as a 48-minute summation of every technique Don Cab have applied to date—but with space generously added so you can hear what's happening between the lines. As a record that gets more dazzling with each listen, it's going to be hard to top without repeating. (Originally published in Alternative Press)

Don Caballero
What Burns Never Returns
[Touch and Go]
Rating: 8.2

Sometimes when the moon is in its third Quarter, or when a cat is seen near a treestump, or when Uranus and Ganymede are lined up just right, I like a disc on the first listen. This is such a disc. Now here I sit, looking for the proper words to describe it to you, my friend, because you might-- just might-- want to give it a try.

Don Caballero is not unlike an excellent band called Iceburn, but where Iceburn takes avant guitar to new extremes of abstract, Don Caballero lingers with repetitive, syncopated melodies that fall upon one another, somehow creating cohesive songs from the cacaphony of frenetically beaten drums and dense yet delicate guitar work. Damon Che, Don Caballero's drummer, drives the machine with alternately explosive and haunting beat tapestries, framing the guitars of Mike Bandfield and Ian Williams. I'm pleased to tell you that it's actually delicious, though not so much in a Tootsie Roll sort of way so much as a Crab Imperial sort of way. Y'git me?

That's to say that these three gentlemen from Steeltown USA, (aka Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) have crafted a genuinely riveting, hypnotic piece of avant- rock that spares the maniacal noodlings and permits weird harmonies to emerge that make listening well worth the while. But pop addicts need not apply, as its intelligent denseness requires a modicum of attention.

- James P. Wisdom

Don Caballero, "What Burns Never Returns"
by Ed Waters

You’ve come to think in terms of structure, verse-chorus-verse, being the most popular one envisioned in your mind. What happens when something completely different is thrown at you? Does your mind then shut itself down and reboots itself for something more familiar? It’s probable only because that is what you are used to. When What Burns Never Returns hits the airwaves it will happen. So many groups have been incorrectly categorized as "math-rock" only because to the uneducated ear it seems complex. There is only one band hitting the popular independent circuit that fits within this category, that would be Don Caballero. Instruments are juxtaposed against one another, at times guitar lines don’t seem to go with the rhythm almost falling into a free-jazz configuration (the lengthy "Don Caballero 3"), but it never happens. It all falls together in some form or another that is recognizable. The arrangements are worked out precisely, on the brink of falling apart ("In The Absence Of Strong Evidence") but never does. In fact it’s so tightly wound there is no chance of it ever crumbling. You would think being an instrumental outfit would have its limitations but all those worries are put to rest ("Delivering Groceries At 138 Beats Per Minute"). It makes you wonder why anyone else would even attempt to play at all when they come across a band like Don Caballero. The organized riffery and the unrelenting rhythms puts everyone else in this game to shame.


What Burns Never Returns (Touch & Go)

Feeling, in part, that it was my civic duty to check out Pittsburgh's best band while I still live here (in addition to the fact that I love the previous two Don Cab albums, as well as off-shoot Storm & Stress) I made damn sure to catch their recent show at a decrepit industrial space in a dinged-out part of town called Millvale. I never expected to be floored speechless by what I saw and heard. The foursome, whose live sets are few and far between (even more so now that guitarist Ian Williams has moved to Chicago), have an incredibly rare grasp of what creating a distinct musical vernacular is about. Weaving in and out of conventional instrumental combo playing at will, they craftily move about from graceful guitar conversations that float and flutter almost tentatively, like sea birds or kites, and at other moments they are grounded with a near metallic grind. Don Cab is best at the wind-up-tight-and-then-release method of composition, a method that has also found favor with bands such as Fugazi and Jesus Lizard (to pick two well-known bands who have singers but would be just as well off if they didn' offense meant to Mr.Yow...) but is seldom used to such advantage. They also give this illusion of going off in four different directions at once but actually they're only going one way and that's a very forceful FORWARD! I may have most of my hearing back now but I still can¹t get this music out of my head. You'd do well to get it into yours. (d.n.l)

Don Caballero
What Burns Never Returns
(Drawer B)

Typically, instrumental rock music is something you want to be careful to avoid, especially when it's a showcase for guitar virtuosity, but Don Caballero will make you eat that train of thought. A quartet from Pittsburgh, Don Caballero has been releasing records for Chicago's Touch And Go label since 1993. The band's music focuses on the jaw-dropping interplay between guitarists Ian Williams and Mike Banfield in a structural setting akin to King Crimson, Rush, and even Fugazi. Don Caballero drives beyond a cerebral guitar crunch with its exciting use of rhythmic precision and intuition thanks in part to drummer Damon Che's ability to execute several time changes in a matter of moments.

What Burns Never Returns is the band's third album and possesses an utter disdain for traditional song structure. Don Caballero takes the term "math rock" to new levels with its polyrhythmic assault interspersed with moments of singular grace and delicacy. To have four guys this talented in the same band is almost disturbing. There are no solos or ego-stroking wank off sessions either. The band does hit simple grooves, occasionally, but this is not jam rock. Every note is carefully calculated. Take, for example, a song like "Slice Where You Live Like Pie" with its off the map chromatic scales and herky, jerky rhythms- there is no room for unplanned self-expression. Sometimes the aural cacophony sounds jumbled, especially when Che's drumming eats up the space on the tape, but these moments are made up for several times over, usually within the same song.

Seeing Don Caballero live just drives home the prowess these guys possess over their respective instruments. Drummer Damon Che's relentless acrobatic pummeling is awe-inspiring to watch not to mention his bandmates' daring deconstruction of the cliched, macho use of the guitar. The band maintains its razor sharp precision without so much as a glance at one another. The set consisted mostly of stuff off the new record and left everyone in the room totally speechless.

Singles Breaking Up (Vol. 1)

Fans started talking as soon as this record's title was announced: After years of internal tension, had Don Caballero finally broken up? On the contrary, the underground's premiere math-metal quartet had just gotten started... again. Having fully reintroduced original bassist Pat Morris (who left the band after the release of their '93 debut LP, For Respect), Don Cab refined their ultra-complex sound in microscopic detail with 1998's What Burns Never Returns, moved from Pittsburgh to Chicago in late '98, began writing for their next studio album soon afterward, and even found time to pull an old track from the vaults. Everything but the relocation (duh) can be heard on Singles Breaking Up Vol. 1, a 13-track singles-and-rarities collection that covers the group's history so far. In addition to housing two ultra-rare EPs for Third Gear and Coat-Tail Records, Singles features "The Lucky Father Brown," Don Cab's first-ever EP, which finds them pulverizing an all-instrumental axis somewhere between Black Flag's Damaged and King Crimson's Red; 1993's "Puddin' in My Eye," perhaps their heaviest track to date; "No More Peace and Quiet for the Warlike," a previously unreleased 1994 exercise in countertonal metal; and the recent single "Trey Dog's Acid," a subdued, minimalistic update of the band's trademark crunch. (Originally published in Alternative Press)

Don Caballero

Singles Breaking Up

Singles Breaking Up is a collection of Don Caballero’s five seven inches, a compilation track, and one previously unreleased song. This collection shows Don Caballero’s astounding growth in both complexity and effectiveness. The early songs go back as far as 1992 and rely more on the dirtier sounds of a distorted guitar than the band’s recent efforts, which explore more experimental time changes and guitar textures. Don Caballero’s ongoing challenge is to make up for its lack of vocals. The result is a deconstruction of the Western idea of song structure with two guitars, a bass, and a drum kit. This is a seemingly limited format, but Don Caballero rises to the occasion with fervent emotion and cunning.

Drummer Damon Che's acrobatic style more than earns him the right to his nickname, Octopus, and, likewise, Ian Williams and Mike Banfield are just as flexible with their guitars, which surge and pummel along with Che but can stop and change direction on a dime. Such rhythmical dynamics keep things interesting without sounding too forced or showy. Don Caballero’s forte is its ability to take difficult music and make it emotional. The band reaches staggering crescendos through both aggression and restraint. Singles Breaking Up is a good “catch up” piece for a band that you need to be on the same level with to reap all the rewards.

Don Caballero, Singles Breaking Up (vol. I) (Touch & Go)

Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, solo, chorus, bad solo. The fearsome foursome known as Don Caballero not only eschew the conventional pop formula, they pound it to a bloody pulp. Don Cabs music resembles a sonic train wreck: terrifying, brutal, yet awesome to behold. While death metal might be the closest genre to identify this band with, Don Caballero is decidedly not metal. Their sound is dark and violent, to be sure, but in a more fragmented and pointed way - intermittent shards of harsh guitar and thundering bass scrape against fusillades of chaotically controlled percussion. Drummer and band leader Damon Che nails his drum kit down onto the stage before performing live, a ritual that, along with stripping down to his skivvies, clearly demonstrates his power and seriousness behind the drums. Don Caballero further refuse to add vocals to their songs, placing them in a class of their own.

Now if you're already a fan of the Don, then Singles Breaking Up will definitely be up your alley, particularly if you jumped late onto the bandwagon. While the CD doesn't technically contain any new Don Cab songs, it does feature a host of B-sides and session tracks left over from the past few albums, as well as one previously unreleased track. To the new listener, however, it may be difficult to tell the difference between songs, especially upon first listen. Despite the reference to the Buzzcocks Singles Going Steady, this is not a collection of Don Caballero's greatest hits, nor will any of the songs ever likely achieve broad commercial success. But if you can stick with it without sustaining a migraine, it may just pay off: you'll start to pick out parts and changes you hadnt noticed before, and begin to appreciate the force and sheer ability of drummer Che (particularly in the shorter songs). Besides Che's blistering stickwork, the real beauty of Don Caballero is the sheer density of its compositions; once you get over the feeling of being overwhelmed, there's something new to be heard and discovered every time. In short: if you're feeling musically adventurous, give this CD - and this band - a try.

- Kerwin So

Don Caballero

Emancipated frustration in a signal drench fraught with dense dual-guitar battalions who chide melody to favor atonal breeches of clarity as a ferocious beast boxes ears with his polyrhythmic pummel. Between it all, a bass writhes, chained to the bowels of the earth, its guttural squelch spewing lines both thick and sinuous. Sure, early Don Cab had their softer, gentler moments, but the learned listener was constantly aware of the quartets more sinister intentions, those that lurked just beneath the spiny chimes and quieted drumming. Not a new record, but a chance to, on one thin platter, harness the fury that seized the seven-inch vinyl world circa 1992-1995 (plus the recent TG181 single from ‘97). (Touch and Go).

Don Caballero
by Jessica Hopper

Singles Breaking Up is Don Cab's track record crib notes for either the uninitiated or the recovering vinyl completest who has not succumbed to the wonders and conveinence of technology. Now you can shed that indie-shame of yr heavy metal past and revel in the fact that, like you, Don Cab was once metal. Listening to this is like watching one of those nature films where they speed up the film so you can see the bloom and eventual decomposition of a fruit or a sea turtle in 2 minutes. We go from witnessing this heavy as hell bee sting - fiesta of trangressive forces of nature making all this gray dust and soot to some misfit of the machine afterlife, some big dead Monster Truck falling from the sky. Like coherent, enjoyable, complex rock, monster trucks descending from the sky are very much a novelty. I propose Don Cab should write letters to all the really third rate show-off super musician bands across the nation saying "We know you exist, please be embarrassed, we are a concrete behemoth of rock and you are merely showing off for the other boys." Let them know they can't get away with that shit while Don Cab roams the earth. (JH)

And now for a less than flattering review...

Don Caballero is a good name for this band because they can really gallop. Unfortunately, after two or three listens to Singles Breaking Up Vol. 1, a collection of singles, one realizes that the band is not headed anywhere anytime in the near, or distant, future.

The title of track eight pretty much gives away Don Caballero's boring, rehashed, monotonous formula: "ANDANDANDANDANDANDANDAND." After listening to meaty guitar part after meaty guitar part, drum fill after drum fill, one finds that though this band sets out to be the King Crimson of post-punk-math-rock, it fails disastrously in both good taste and narrative sensibility.

I probably would have thought these guys were wicked cool if they were a local band and I was a freshmen in high school. At that point I would not have wholeheartedly delved into all the good bands this band redoes or rips off: Fugazi, Sonic Youth, Drive Like Jehu, Jesus Lizard, Unsane, Polvo, Die Kreutzen, and countless others.

Don Caballero sets itself apart by having no vocals--but this only highlights the group's stridently boring guitar parts and its overzealous, annoying drummer. If this band did a video it would have to be a 15-minute shot of this guy standing behind his kit, doing roll after roll in a bad parody of a prog-rock nightmare.

In song after song, Don Caballero's guitars struggle--but fail--to escape the drummer's clickety click-roll thwap. Even in the last two tracks, which rip off such late '90s pioneers as Tortoise, The Sea and Cake, and Gastr Del Sol, the guitarists can't get him to shut up. Instead of one continuous fill, he plays a bunch of little broken-up fills here and there. In the end, Singles Breaking Up Vol. 1 actually sounds a lot like listening to the same old snap, crackle, and pop of breakfast cereal when you have a hangover. (Touch and Go)

--Carl Ehrhardt (stolen from the Yale Herald).

Don Caballero