It all started one magical night when I came home to an empty apartment after work. My roommates were out somewhere having fun and I was left with an evening alone. Then the phone rang. It was Ryan Hastings and he wanted to see if any of us wanted to see a film with him called Rushmore. Of course I said yes. Ryan was the super hero of our circle. He was ridiculously good-looking, studied martial arts, read Latin, and played drums like it was nobody’s business. We didn’t call it a “man crush” back then but it’s true, I had one. Do people still say “man crush”? Anyway, as we were heading back from the movie (which we loved, naturally), the topic inevitably turned to music. Right when we got back to the apartment, Ryan said rather dramatically, “What do you mean you haven’t heard Don Caballero 3?”
This controversy began because our mutual friend Mike Jolley said that the third album from Don Caballero was bad and that it sounded like “a bunch of keyboards and shit”. To this day, Mike denies saying this and he’s probably right. Any of our crew could have potentially said that. I’m looking at you, Ryan McGrath. The point is, while I really enjoyed Don Caballero’s first two albums, SOMEONE had poisoned my brain with that wildly erroneous and pernicious opinion. Ryan ran out to his truck, grabbed his copy of the 1998 album, What Burns Never Returns AKA “Don Caballero 3”, and put the CD on. As soon as it kicked in on my Onkyo receiver, my head exploded. As he was picking fragments of my skull and brains out of his hair, I think that Ryan probably regretted introducing me to the album.
Don Caballero formed in the early 1990s and were one of the pioneers of a subgenre called math rock. Math rock is very technical rock music often featuring super long songs and riffs that sound like hummingbirds mating with bobcats. One of the key aspects of Don Caballero -and many math rock bands- is their lack of a singer. The story goes that they couldn’t find a singer that fit what they were doing and so they just decided to be instrumental. Vocals wouldn’t show up on a Don Cab song until their 7th album in 2008. Other ingredients of this band that would become standard in the math rock genre is their dry sense of humor, long song titles, and weird time signatures. The band is named after Guy Caballero (played by Joe Flaherty) from “SCTV”, a Canadian sketch comedy show. The Don part of their name comes from a classic episode parodying The Godfather films. Please see my “SCTV” piece.
Don Caballero had a bit of a reputation for having bristly personalities. When I saw them in 2000 on their “final tour” (more about that in a moment), they were behaving strangely, telling hideously long jokes and drummer Damon Che even did a pratfall at one point. To this day, I still chalk up that pratfall to the band’s own “SCTV” fandom. Their whole live show was bewildering and overwhelming to me both in their musicianship and their odd behavior. I didn’t know what to think but I knew that I loved it. A month or so later on that very tour, the band would get into a van accident on a snowy road. While no one was seriously injured, this was the last straw for the band as ongoing tensions erupted. This breakup didn’t keep Che from reforming the band a few years later with all new guitarists and bass player. Today, the band is currently inactive, occasionally releasing live albums. Guitar player, Ian Williams, is now in Battles, one of the most fascinating bands out there.
The first Don Caballero album called For Respect is a lot of fun. Its unrelenting riffery, mountainous drumming, and bite-sized songs makes it the band’s most accessible album. Their follow-up, Don Caballero 2, is one of the megaton level heaviest albums I’ve ever heard. The guitars’ feedback give way at one point as a buzz saw rips through the record in a total shit-your-pants moment. The songs are long, loud, pummeling, unrelenting, and inhuman. Even the album cover is frightening and isolating with its smokestacks pumping poison into the air. While there are subtle hints as to what was in store for the follow-up to their second record, What Burns Never Returns is a hard left turn with the headlights switched off.
One detail that always makes me smile is that the final drumbeat that closes out Don Caballero 2 is the first thing you hear on What Burns Never Returns. At the end of “No One Gives a Hoot About FAUX-ASS Nonsense”, all of the musicians go silent except for Damon Che who keeps hammering out a beat all alone. Finally, he stops with that final snare hit ringing out into reverby nothingness. Three years later, the first song on What Burns is called, rightly enough, “Don Caballero 3” and picks up with that same beat. The drums don’t just kick in, they comes bubbling up beneath a pile of melted boomboxes on a garbage planet of rotting stereos. Then they break free and fly into space. And so, the album begins with a song that is just a dozen or so seconds short of ten minutes long.
While these two albums are connected by that drumbeat, What Burns Never Returns establishes itself with the first guitar riffs. Instead of heavy and headbanger-friendly riffs, the bulk of what Ian Williams and original Don Cab guitarist Mike Banfield are playing comes across as strangely childlike and broken. They sound like someone trying to take an electric guitar apart or get sound out of it for the first time. The heaviest and most obviously rock or metal guitar playing comes during a song called “Delivering the Groceries at 138 BPM”. It feels like something that could have easily been on Don Caballero 2. But by the following track, “Slice Where You Live Like Pie”, Williams and Banfield are back to their weird electric guitar massage techniques. This is still my favorite song on the album featuring my favorite guitar riff of all time. Which riff? It’s the one that sounds like space-whale mating calls.
The only part of this album that felt stale to me even after years of listening, was the sixth track called “The World in Perforated Lines”. It just felt like a bland filler piece leading to the last two far superior tracks. But that all changed when the genesis for this article arrived in the mail. I’d only ever owned What Burns Never Returns on CD since the spring of 1999. Recently, I finally splurged and ordered a used copy of the vinyl from eBay. The night it arrived, I sat in our living room with my headphones on and took in the entire 48 minutes. That’s when the most underrated aspect of Don Caballero became painfully obvious to me: bass player, Pat Morris. When I could finally clearly hear what Morris was doing on “The World in Perforated Lines”, it was like I had a new and unreleased What Burns bonus track. Folks, if you have a favorite album, listen to it on every format available. You never know what revelations you might find.
As my friends will tell you, I tend to get stuck on a record. I’m still getting over The Breeders’ Last Splash and that came out a couple years ago. Once something I love hits that sweet spot then I’ll listen to it more times than any rational person should. What Burns Never Returns was the soundtrack to my 20s and I still return to it over and over again. I spent so many late nights just trying to wear that CD down while driving around and looking for a fog enshrouded house just like the majestic album cover. I also spent too much time pondering the cryptic message on the album: “You can go up or down.” Even though my friend Ryan is no longer on this plane of existence, I still think about that fateful night when he booked it out to his truck to retrieve his copy so that it could change my life. The entire Don Caballero catalog has so much going for it in terms of heady sonic literature and time signature tomfoolery that I can’t recommend their music enough to the open-minded listener.