Don Caballero - Punkgasm Release Date: August 18th, 2008
Record Label: Relapse Records
Ian Williams’s angular, stumble-step rhythm was an obsession at the very least.
For kids dazed in the backseat of a school bus coasting suburban back roads, nothing should be especially rude or discomforting. My headphones said differently however, Don Caballero told me separate. Williams was able to take bounds that had previously been unexplored, and completely chart the fuck out of them. Along with Damon Che’s impeccable talent behind the drumset and Pat Morris’s lanky basslines, 1998’s What Burns Never Returns was a cacophony of melting cadence and control. It substantiated the loosely-structured and un-orchestral in contemporary instrumental music. This was all of course before Williams quit the band. Impulsive and obtuse was the name of the game, in part because of Ian Williams’s foray in to what he now specializes in with the experimental supergroup Battles. What he left behind, however, would be nowhere near as inventive as the Don was in its prime.
For the uninitiated, Pittsburgh’s Don Caballero have been tagged everything from “math rock” to the more concise, often less debatable “instrumental” or “progressive rock”; catching these glares because of willfully obscure instrumentation and non-conformity to traditional time signatures. The band has had a revolving door of band members, but there has been no lineup as worthy to carry the Don Cab banner as the one aforementioned. Perhaps this is why the band’s sixth proper full-length, painfully titled Punkgasm, is such an immense disappointment — and it’s not just because the band decided to add vocals. Nothing about this album reminds me of the once manic miscreants. Even ’06s World Class Listening Problem had most of what the band was founded upon in songs like “Railroad Cancellation” and “Palm Trees in the Fecking Bahamas,” even if the album as a whole was sort of a flub.
Punkgasm is the laziest goddamn album I think I’ve ever heard. It digresses from the decent “Loudest Shop Vac in the World” and near-great, ultimately too short “Irrespective Dick Area” to the blatant Battles wannabe (or mockery, I can’t tell) “Dirty Looks” and the absolutely atrocious “Awe Man That’s Jive Skip.” While off-the-wall creative angularities and intuitive fret-tapping were the objective in Cab’s past, most notably in the fantastic American Don, “safety” seems to be the safe word here — and it gets used a lot. Unimpressive maneuvers around the guitar-neck that seem to take themselves as something quite creative pace Punkgasm with all of the urgency of a slow turd on a Sunday afternoon. Songs are curiously short and lack discernible substance; such as the lo-fi drum recording that constitutes as “Shit Kids Galore” and the oriental shuffles and cascading bellows of “Who’s a Puppy Cat.” I would venture to say that the entire album feels like a collection of interludes, because of both the brevity and the lack of material that is worth coming back for another listen. The songs that do warrant a little more than a one-over aren’t that much more impressive. “Bulk Eye” is the second-longest song on the album and it couldn’t lack less of a punch. The guitars are creatively aimless but uninteresting because its various tangents and digressions are painfully unschooled and overconfident. Che would normally step it up if the guitars aren’t the main focus, but his intuition is nowhere to be found behind his bland chorus of symbols and snare snaps.
I’m already beginning to see sympathy for the album’s addition of vocals around various online musical outlets and it’s pitiful considering how they are unnecessary and downright lackluster. “Celestial Dusty Groove” is the biggest casualty. The song is set up as a saving grace to the album; tribal Damon Che rhythm and an introductory collection of guitar chords and sass – not typical, but I’ll take it. Then comes the forced smoothness of guitarist Eugene Doyle’s voice with, “Down the hall in to the room…” effectively airing the room of any uniqueness and mystery the once dependable, vocal-less forerunners of “math rock” had going for them. Following this distasteful footnote in the Don’s history is the equally questionable stylings of Che himself struggling to sound remotely decent in singing, “You know I don’t like to see you cry/And you know you don’t like it when you break the table/I’m going to turn you in to a bottle of bleach/And pour you into the rug.” I’ll let that verse speak for itself.
In the process of going pitiful lengths to try and cling on to their once groundbreaking sound and filtering it through faux-metal crunch to validate their place on Relapse Records’s roster, Don Caballero find a medium in the bottom of the barrel by making Punkgasm a tedious and uninspiring listen. It is always heartbreaking to see falls from grace such as this, but for a band that has had quite a flighty lineup over the years it is to be expected. New listeners to the band may find something to enjoy, but this reviewer only found disappointment and ingenuity that is quickly circling the drain.
Nice to see this reviewed. Even with a drastically different lineup, there are still some songs here like "Lord Krepelka" I enjoy; I enjoyed WCLP as a whole. But that doesn't mean their first four records aren't my favorite--especially American Don. And why would I bitch about Ian being gone? Battles blows my mind. I also never would have gotten to hear about Tyondai Braxton's solo joint History That Has No Effect, one of my favorite records ever.