Hailing from Pittsburgh, PA, Don Caballero managed to set a new standard for instrumental post-rock bands of the ’90s. Formed by a group of skilled, sophisticated players (there were several lineup changes throughout the band's history, drummer Damon Che being the only consistent member) Don Caballero is considered to be one of the pioneers of math-rock, a genre that spawned from the No Wave and Hardcore scenes of the late 80’s and is characterized by the use of distortion, dissonance and complex rhythmic patterns, while consciously rejecting conventional rock structures in an approach not so different to the one of progressive rock giants like King Crimson and Rush. Don Cab (as nicknamed by fans) is certainly one of the most prominent bands of the genre (alongside Tortoise, Piglet, and Slint) and responsible for some of the most essential math-rock albums of all time.
In their fourth studio album, American Don, Don Caballero coined a style that combines King Crimson’s musical intricacies and Steve Reich’s repetitive textures to create music that flows freely in an inhibited, natural way. Tapping guitar and bass riffs are masterfully interweaved in complex patterns counterpointed against powerful, aggressive drumming. It’s an interesting contrast; the music has a tame and playful vibe to it while still retaining the punch of their previous albums thanks to Damon Che’s intense drumming style. Released October 3, 2000, by indie label Touch and Go Records and produced by renowned producer Steve Albini, the album has a fresh, organic sound; the listener can almost feel as being in the same room the band is playing in. American Don is considered to be the group's final album due to personal issues between drummer Damon Che and guitarist Ian Williams, the creative core of the band. However, there were subsequent releases with Damon Che as the only original member. The band is considered to be inactive since 2011, but no official statement regarding the band's status has been made by any member yet.
Don Caballero’s previous studio albums, For Respect and Don Caballero 2 were defined by an abrasive, menacing sound; distorted guitars, atonal sounds, and dissonance are very much present in both releases. Since What Burns Never Returns, their third studio album, the band started to focus on cleaner guitars and textures without neglecting the intricate language, intensity and unconventional structures present in their earlier releases. In American Don, the band is reduced to a trio; the gap left by guitarist Mike Banfield is filled by Ian William’s tapping guitar looped through AKAI pedals. Compared to the band’s previous albums, American Don has a much more playful, optimistic, and even romantic sound. This makes it a great album to get into both Don Caballero and math-rock- it’s fun and interesting to listen to.
The opening track, Fire Back About Your New Baby’s Sex, sets the tone of the album; Williams’ layered tapping guitar melodies are later joined by Damon’s powerful drumming and Emm’s aggressive basslines. The music evolves over several sections that are seemingly unrelated to each other. These abrupt transitions happen all over the album, yet the band manages to make them sound organic and natural. In the second half of the track The Peter Criss Jazz the guitar part sounds like a drunken Jimmy Page looping the chords from Fool In the Rain in an almost nonsensical pattern; impressively, Damon Che manages to find a logic to the pattern’s shifts and drums accordingly with his characteristic drum ‘blunders’ in a masterful way.
In Haven’t Lived Afro Pop, William’s looped guitar layers cascade over Che’s acrobatic drumming, Eric Emms’ tapping bassline transforms into a riff that is later joined by yet another tapping guitar arrangement, forming a beautiful, psychedelic soundscape in the style of Steve Reich. The trio develops this riff until the very end of the track. Ones All Over the Place starts as a meditative, yet percussion-wise aggressive piece, with Emm’s bass mixed way up front. The track goes over radically different sections in a labyrinthian, yet fluid way- you can listen several times to this track and still pick up details you had not noticed before.
The album really picks up after the second half; I Never Liked You is one of the most dynamic and exciting pieces of the album, the bass and drums interlocking with amazing musical precision. Unlike most of the other tracks of the album, this one sticks to the original riff idea and develops it throughout the song. 'Details on How to Get ICEMAN on Your License Plate' starts with a reversed guitar which is later replaced by a nostalgic sounding guitar/bass counterpoint.
A Lot of People Tell Me I Have A Fake British Accent is an intoxicating, intense track, where Che’s drumming really gets to shine, pummeling away against William’s convoluted guitar riffs. It also takes the prize for the most hilarious song name of the album. A machine gun-like bass riff followed by Che’s wild drumming gives way to a classic Williams tapping guitar riff in Let’s Face it, Pal, You Didn’t Need That Eye Surgery, the album closer. This upbeat track evolves like a living organism, Williams frantic guitar riffs growing in intensity as the album reaches its climax. During the energetic buildup towards the end, atmospheric guitars take over and the album is finished off with a simple major chord.
Unfortunately, as mentioned before, American Don was to be Don Caballero's last studio album with the band as a whole. In one of the ugliest band breakups ever recorded, the trio disbanded after being involved in a catastrophic car accident; the van in which the band was traveling in while heading to Detroit for their last show on the American Don tour hit a patch of ice, causing it to crash heavily against a semi-truck. Nobody was gravely injured, but the band decided to stop playing together after the incident, mainly because of personal issues among band members. 'They hated each other' as Fred Weaver, (a singer/songwriter who opened the band's shows during the tour) puts it. He later wrote an elaborate account of the events of the American Don tour, including the disastrous accident. The article was published in the music magazine Chunklet-you can find the link below. It's an interesting read; it offers a detailed insight into the band member's clashing personalities and their surreal experiences during the tour.
American Don still holds its status as one of math-rock's finest albums to this day; it's a great album for listeners who want to get into the genre, and the music retains its freshness even after repeated listening. If you enjoy this album I recommend checking out What Burns Never Returns and Don Caballero 2 as well.
Don Caballero's Final Tour Diary
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