Review Summary: If you thought their last album was outlandish, things just got a whole lot worse (in a good way).
Embracing every unusual element of their last album and increasing it tenfold, the band pushes abnormality to the forefront of their third studio album. If you listened to Don Caballero's studio album discography in chronological order, it'd be clear that their debut, For Respect, held an obvious post-punk sound full of heavy yet brisk riffs. Their second album, surprisingly called Don Caballero 2 (yes, that's sarcasm), still contained that post-punk influence but in a subtler way. Now, on their third album, the post-punk influence has completely evaporated from their sound and has ascended to musical heaven. Instead, this album's full focus is on the less orthodox side of things we saw on Don Caballero 2.
There are 2 things you need to understand going into this album. Firstly, this is not easy listening and far from it. First time I heard this album I was confused at how anybody could even classify this garbage as real music. I tried to get into it, but I just couldn't, and only got into it and the rest of Don Caballero because of a chance re-visitation 8 months later. You've got to wait for it to click, and while you're waiting you've got to force yourself through a big steaming heap of trash. Secondly, there's no main instrument. Usually, when we think of a song, we think of it in individual parts. Some of these parts are more significant than others. In rock for example, the guitars and vocals (if there are any) are usually the more important parts, while the drums and bass are the less important parts which are more processed in the background. I've heard some say that in Don Cab the drums are the primary instrument, but I disagree. The roles of the drums and the guitar are definitely reversed in a way, with the drums having lots of variation while the guitar is constantly repeating riffs. However, I find it better listening to the composition as a whole. This album is more of a musical experience than an album. It's like the abstract expressionism art movement but in musical form, and that can be said for avant-garde music as a whole. It's very erratic, doesn't really have any meaning or purpose, but is beautiful to look at.
Upon playing this album, you'll be met with crazy drums, twinkling guitars and a heavy bass playing unearthly math rock so repetitive yet incomprehensible it's almost as if the band are trying to hypnotise you. However, like the abstract expressionism example I alluded to earlier, throughout this trip moments of astonishing beauty can be found, and very consistently also. Even though this album should really be seen for what it is, a group of musical instruments having a breakdown, there's something about this album that's so awesome. Behind all of the twinkling guitars and odd time signatures lies this indescribable vibe given off by the album. The best term I could use is ethereal but that doesn't fully capture the vibe I'm trying to describe. The only thing that can truly describe it is the cover art itself. There's just something about it. I at first imagined it as a UFO light beam getting ready to deploy some aliens on top of a house below a green and gloomy sky here on Earth. However, after thinking for a while, I began to look at it as a UFO light getting ready to deploy some humans onto a post-apocalyptic extraterrestrial planet. Now that I think about it, that's the perfect way to describe it. This album is the soundtrack to walking across the barren wastelands of a post-apocalyptic world once home to an advanced alien species under a green sky at evening time. It's that vibe that turns this album from a random selection of twinkles and drum beats into an experience that transports you elsewhere.
To conclude, What Burns Never Returns is a great album in their discography marking the first of a two album run (this and American Don) that popularised them within the math rock community. It's not hard to see why this album helped pioneer an entire genre, it deserves it. Whether you love or hate this album, it's originality is undeniable and without it math rock wouldn't be the same.