Saturday, March 5, 2011

Math Rock pt. One: Rumah Sakit and Don Caballero

I have been on a bit of an instrumental music jag recently, so for those of you who are fans of words, you will have to hang in there with me for just a little while longer.  I’m a over the electroncia for the time being, though.  I’ve been missing the sound of technique, of hands on instruments, and as a result I have been delving back into so-called “math rock.”

So….math rock?  What exactly is that all about?  Well, if you are down with complex instrumental music, funny time signatures, and a punkish attitude, there are definitely some bands out there doing things that will interest you.  The band that really turned me on to the genre was Rumah Sakit.  Their first self-titled album is quite possibly an all-time classic for me, but beyond the release dates of their two albums, there is very little info on them.  It is difficult to tell if they are even still active.  No live footage and no fan-made videos exist of these guys that I have found, but here’s a still-frame video of one of my favs.  Hold on tight.

Researching further, all paths marked “math rock” seemed to lead to Don Caballero.  I got “World Class Listening Problem” around the time it came out in 2006 and like Rumah Sakit, it exhibits a cerebral intensity that hits me in the gut.  This is the kind of thing I like to listen to when I work out, which probably says something in itself.

Here’s the deal, though - some of the band’s more devout fans argue whether this version of the band should have even been called Don Caballero.  The classic lineup was active between 1991 and 2000.  Drummer Don Che reformed the group in 2006 with an entirely different lineup.  As much as I am a fan of the recent iteration of Don Caballero, it seemed a no-brainer to pick up their more genre-defining albums from that earlier era, especially since guitarist Ian Williams, who would go on to play in the group Battles (a favorite band that you will hear about in the near future), was a consistent presence in the group.

I have a lot of respect of the musicianship involved in what Don Caballero was doing during this time, but I have struggled to find in their classic albums the same intensity that later versions of the band and the bands that they have influenced exhibit.  This week I have been listening to “American Don” from 2000, and I found a good live clip from this period.  Check out the use of looping:

“American Don” is technically amazing and it has its moments, but it sometimes feels like an experiment with no hypothesis. It’s clever, and smart, and impressive, but right now it also comes off as aloof and dispassionate by its end.  I don’t always get that from the bands the cite Don Caballero as an influence, and I am chomping at the bit to listen to some of that stuff in the coming weeks.   

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