Don Caballero drummer Damon Che is a showman. He demonstrates it in weird ways, sure — beats and fills everywhere you wouldn’t expect them, onstage spats with bandmates, mid-set shaggy dog stories — but this guy thoroughly enjoys bequeathing the math-rock faithful what they need, and tons of stuff they never knew they wanted. Which is why it seemed inevitable that Che would reconstitute Don Cab for the water-treading World Class Listening Problem (2006) after a three-year break and six-year recording hiatus. And it’s also why its follow-up, Punkgasm, can feel frustratingly recursive even as it breaks strange new ground for the band.
Nobody’s going to argue that Punkgasm opener “Loudest Shop Vac in the World” doesn’t rule totally and utterly. Or that Che’s current bandmates, Eugene Doyle and Jason Jouver, don’t summon the fire of their predecessors, or that the Don Caballero hasn’t sounded this vicious since its high watermark, Don Caballero 2. It’s just that Don Caballero 2 came out in 1995, and about a third of this album also sounds like it hails from 1995, with those same guitars scissoring through cyclical riffs, and Che uncovering the same excitement in any and every time signature possible.
Elsewhere the Don Cab time machine moves forward to the pointillist American Don-isms of “Slaughbaughs’ Ought Not Own Dog Data” and “Who’s a Puppy Cat.” Some real purty textured rock ‘n’ roll pointillism, but it’s a sound the band introduced to indie rock a decade ago, and although Battles (which features Che’s estranged ex-bandmate Ian Williams) have morphed this sound into something new and wonderful, Don Cab hit the same spectral highs as days of yore. There’s showman Che, high-stepping and polyrhythm-busting for the assembled masses. They’ve come to watch his superhuman drumming feats, and they shan’t be let down.
Maybe the conservative “greatest hits” approach of Punkgasm’s majority wouldn’t feel like a slight disappointment if it weren’t for the eye-opening new stuff that Che and company try out in its minority. The band’s rhythmic complexity hatchets down into streamlined rhythms and shorter track lengths on a number of songs, with uncomfortable but promising results. Most shocking: six albums in and we finally have Don Caballero’s very first attempts at vocals. Wonder of wonders, Che’s streaky pipes add sunny dimensions to the 7/4 groove underneath “Celestial Dusty Groove.” And “Why Is the Couch Always Wet” treats the voice as just another instrument to be layered across a grotto of gorgeous, droning guitar. Don Caballero peer through the escape hatch from their self-imposed instru-metal cage, and there’s no telling where they could go from here.