Curse him for his heresy against indie/math rock/whatever, but Damon Che can still play those drums. Though the “octopus” continues what detractors dismiss as a sham version of instrumental rock band Don Caballero, the current incarnation boasts impressive chops. It would have been easy to write off 2006’s World Class Listening Problem as Che’s exercise in chest-thumping. After all, the guy revived the band without the original members. But as evidenced on Punkgasm, the new Don means business.
Maintaining the band’s mostly muscular instrumental approach, the album features even heavier, more metal-influenced moments. Though it somewhat resembles Don Cab’s earliest output, the record reflects the contributions and skills of the current team. It’d be foolish to think anyone could top otherworldly guitarist Ian Williams, but Eugene Doyle slips easily into those Shaq-sized shoes. He tosses off metallic licks and finger-tapped melodies with equal aplomb. Bassist Jason Jouver rides the neck when needed and anchors the histrionic tendencies of his flashy bandmates. Like the original Don Cab, this is a band’s band: They write in odd time signatures, throw in weird, unpredictable juxtapositions, and revel in the unexpected. This makes the album an exhausting experience, though always an intriguing one.
The glaring difference on Punkgasm is the inclusion of vocals and it’s a welcome change. Unlike the super-processed munchkin squalls of Williams’s new band, Battles, Don Cab opts for a more natural voice—airy, winsome, even falsetto at times. Adding some semblance of normalcy to this challenging music works wonders. Singing appears on “Celestial Dusty Groove,” as well as the Shudder to Think-like “Dirty Looks.”
But who cares about guitars and vocals? This remains the Damon Che show. His playing has never been better, especially on the rapid-fire snare hits of “Pour You Into the Rug” and the multiple layers of percussion on “The Irrespective Dick Area.” His style meshes well with everything Doyle pulls out, particularly the squealing, discordant metal riffing on “Bulk Eye.” Yet these are also Che’s most restrained performances: Instead of constant polyrhythmic blasts, he channels his skills into more nuanced playing.
That’s not to say the album is perfect. Like the brashest of hip-hop stars or the richest of athletes, these guys aren’t beyond boasting: They do it on throwaway tracks like “Shit Kids Galore,” which is nothing more than a drum mic-check, with Che haphazardly pounding out a mundane beat and a few accent hits; “Who’s a Puppy Cat” features twinkling guitars and what sounds like synthesized sax and not much else; the title track eschews all vestiges of math in favor of straight-up cock rock—it’s sloppy and mundane, repeating the same measures ad nauseam. It’s here that the band’s offbeat sense of humor and do-whatever-the-fuck-we-want attitude gets the best of them.
Regardless of their incarnation, Don Caballero invented a new musical vocabulary that scores of bands studied and memorized to construct their own pale treatises of math rock. One need only observe the glut of instru-metal bands lumbering across the stale rockscape like young mastodons and overweight pelicans, most of whom lift liberally from Don Cab’s back catalog. Classic lineup or not, the Don still trumps them all.