Album Review: DIABLO SWING ORCHESTRA Pacifisticuffs
Sweden has always been a beacon for modern progressive metal, as many of the genre’s greatest artists—Anekdoten, Pain of Salvation, Meshuggah, and Opeth, to name a few—hail from there. Of course, arguably none are as wonderfully off-the-wall as octet Diablo Swing Orchestra. Formed about fifteen years ago, their prior three LPs (especially 2012’s phenomenal Pandora’s Piñata) revealed a group whose avant-garde tendencies (in terms of stylistic mash-ups, vocal unpredictability, and appealingly madcap songwriting) made them equal parts endearingly cartoonish and immeasurably refined. In general, the same can be said for their latest collection, Pacifisticuffs; however, the record also marks a significant shift away from their beloved peculiarities and variety and towards a more streamlined, downright poppy aesthetic. There’s still a fair amount of the classic DSO sound here, but the lack of truly audacious and diverse moments in favor of a heightened unified and commercial approach means that Pacifisticuffs is somewhat disappointing and out of place in relation to its predecessors.
A lot has changed for DSO since Pandora’s Piñata, including the departure of Annlouice Lögdlund and introduction of Kristin Evegård, who brings a pop/punk edge that works more often than not. In fact, the band purposefully made Pacifisticuffs a reinvention of sorts, with a lyrical emphasis on “making comments on outside events . . . [since] there’s too much going on in the world right now to not saying anything about it.” Although it’s always admirable for a band to blend new techniques and old staples, as this collection shows, it’s not always completely successful in execution, as the absence of standout melodies, male/female singer trade-offs, and over-the-top moments makes the disc an enjoyable yet safe and superficial effort.
To be sure, the full-length is filled with wonderful DSO elements. For instance, opener “Knucklehugs (Arm Yourself with Love)” packs the kind of histrionic silliness and catchy intricacy that made their prior outings so pleasing. From its playful chants—including voices that induces Elvis Presley and squirrels—feisty percussion, and deep string freak-outs to its swing horns, metal riffs, and bluegrass banjos, it’s a brilliant slice of celebratory wackiness and inventiveness as only they can deliver. Later, “The Age of Vulture Culture” makes greater use of ominous orchestration, and there’s no denying how well the sinister seductiveness of Evegård fits in; likewise, “Superhero Jagganath” has an almost tropical flair near the middle that, in conjunction with its overarching operatic nature and the return of quasi Elvis, makes it a wonderfully zany and ambitious treat. Further on, “Lady Clandestine Chainbreaker” packs an addictive rebelliousness (that, oddly enough, would’ve fit well on No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom or Return of Saturn), “Jigsaw Hustle” mixes in a bit of disco (to great results), and “Karma Bonfire” is a bouncy tune with plenty of vibrant rhythmic changes and tones. It’s pieces like these that make DSO so extraordinary.
Although there aren’t any overtly wasteful tunes here, several fail to measure up to the aforementioned set. For instance, “Ode to the Innocent”—which consists of only strings and Evegård’s pleas—is a bit too sparse to appeal; in addition, “Interruption” and “Climbing the Eyewall” contain the expected dense collage of textures and changes, but they never really surpass mere in-the-moment satisfaction to become standouts. The more egregious issue with Pacifisticuffs, however, is the dominance of Evegård on almost every track. Don’t get me wrong—she’s a great addition to the fold, but a large part of DSO’s identity is the balance of male and female singing, so having her lead almost entirely makes the sequence a bit too monotonous and unfulfilling.
Pacifisticuffs isn’t as special or surprising as its predecessors, but it’s a really good album in its own right, as it maintains a decent amount of what makes DSO shine. In a way, it’s the best entry point for unacquainted listeners since it’s the most easily digestible LP they’ve done, with newcomer Kristin Evegård bringing a freshness to the affair that makes it fit within the catalogue while also feeling markedly different from anything else the octet has done. That said, this newfound penchant for accessibility means that some of the in-your-face quirkiness and multifaceted nature of prior efforts have been lost, which hurts the collection overall. Still, Pacifisticuffs will surely satisfy all listeners to some degree, and DSO should be championed for setting itself apart so meticulously.