Wednesday, December 13, 2017

album review: 'pacifisticuffs' by diablo swing orchestra

I get the feeling that just about every element of this particular act is going to require an explanation, including why in the Nine Hells I'm covering them in the first place - because while there are weird metal acts, Diablo Swing Orchestra sits in a category mostly by itself.

And the bizarre thing for once is that I can say I've mostly been a fan of this Swedish group for years. I was introduced to their debut and arguably best project The Butcher's Ballroom in university by a friend given my liking for symphonic metal, but that's only a component of the madhouse of this group, which blends in elements of swing, jazz, and classical music to their sound with a manic vaudeville approach, blending male and female vocals of all varieties against some pretty aggressive and yet remarkably catchy progressive metal, complete with strings and horns sections to boot! And yet at the same time they were always a band that I kept a little at arm's length, mostly because they could slip towards the deeply silly despite their wit and vaudeville kitsch does tend to test my patience, even though I would say all of their work is remarkably accessible all the same. Still, I did appreciate their follow-up records in 2009 and 2012, and I was curious to check out their newest project, with a new female singer stepping in. Granted, I was a little concerned that this record had to be delayed for a year in order to correct mixing issues, but hey, we've got it now, how is Pacifisticuffs?

Folks, there's no point in mincing words, especially when it seems like for once the critical consensus seems to be in agreement about this: despite a pretty amazing album title, Pacifisticuffs by Diablo Swing Orchestra is a mess, the sort of tragic drop-off in quality that shows a band stepping into new territory and fumbling dramatically. Again, I was never the biggest fan of Diablo Swing Orchestra before, but seeing the drop-off is more than a little alarming.

And for a change of pace, it's remarkably straightforward to pinpoint what went wrong... and sadly a big factor of it is the new singer Kristen Evegard. Now I genuinely don't like blaming a band's change in sound or shift in quality on new members, especially when a good enough producer or composer will shift to compensate... but the shift to Evegard definitely compromises an element of the band's sound and tone overall. See as I stressed before, one of the tricky balancing acts the band worked in meshing their sound was the more sinister and dark metal tones along with the more colorful swing and jazz from the horns and rhythms, and former singer Annlouice Loegdlund's operatic vocals fit aptly in splitting the difference, capable of classical poise but also a certain sultry energy. In switching to Evegard... the easiest comparison was the shift in Nightwish from Tarja Turunen to Anette Olzon, but that also corresponded with the songwriting and production getting rougher and wilder to keep the same intensity. And Diablo Swing Orchestra did shift their sound too... but they compromised their intensity and atmosphere to do it, and for a band that's always walked the narrow line between serious and silly, this choice pitches them straight into camp and not particularly well-executed at that. And again, this isn't all Evegard's fault - there are definitely moments where she winds up sounding like Columbia from Rocky Horror, but there are more languid deep cuts where she's trying to add the sultry flavor, you can tell she's trying, especially as she's given the vocal lead more often than ever before, with less of a chance to play off Daniel Hakansson - at least Nightwish knew how to hedge their bets here!

And yet even she can't hold against some of the utterly baffling instrumental or production choices on this album! For one, the deep baritone vocals trying to split the difference between Johnny Cash and Elvis on songs like 'Knucklehugs' and 'Superhero Jagganath' are just goddamn goofy without the proper support - I'm assuming they were added to lend context why the band added a prominent banjo to many of these tracks, but that leads to the question why on earth they thought that sound would be a good fit! I get going for a ramshackle vaudeville sound, but if you're going to compromise the darker atmospherics that made The Butcher's Ballroom so damn potent I probably still wouldn't think the banjo was the right choice! And that's before you get to the extraneous whirling compression effects added to 'The Age Of Vulture Culture' - easily two of the better songs here and they do add a trace of psychedelia to compliment the melodic grooves, but none of it feels all that dark or heavy. And sure, 'Karma Bonfire' does have some fiery presence, but you rapidly come to realize that for as much as the basslines are textured and the chunky electric grooves try to add foundation, they can't build that darker atmosphere all on their own when the horns and strings are playing much jauntier tunes, or the vocals are playing to a much more exaggerated vibe. And that doesn't even touch on how the dirty vocals were almost completely excluded, or how the horn progressions can seem closer to ska in their mixing and presentation than swing or jazz, or the industrial breakdown on 'Lady Clandestine Chainbreaker' that comes out of nowhere, or how 'Jigsaw Hustle' is an outright disco tune! And that lack of tonal consistency can't quite obscure the other issue: the mixing. Again, I have a hard time ripping on a band who suffered some real technical glitches in the recording, there are points where you can tell they're working with what they have - but especially with a lot of the symphonic vocals and drumwork it can sound way muddier then it should, or just burying Evegard against so many shrill tones it gives her no room to fully breathe.

That's also one of the reasons why I sadly don't have much to say about the actual lyrical content, because it was often an active struggle to even make out a lot of what was said. What I did find... honestly, pretty underwhelming. Now as I've said before, symphonic metal doesn't exactly need great lyrics, but when you start realizing how so many of the verses don't even make the effort to rhyme, or how the content feels oddly lacking in distinctive color in its anthems to love and breaking free and defining one's own identity even as the world burns down around you - along with a few references on songs like 'Ode to The Innocent' that seem close to social commentary but don't stick the landing - all of which contributes to hooks that are nowhere near as potent as what the band has delivered in the past... Again, this album's larger issues are in production and instrumentation choices, but the fact that the lyrics or feel a little run-of-the-mill do not stand out definitely doesn't help them.

So yeah, this was definitely a disappointment for me. Diablo Swing Orchestra definitely has a niche sound and for three records they held that tricky tonal balance between seething and darker symphonic metal and a certain brand of swing-inspired vaudeville kitsch, but with no real stylistic throughline and a series of wrongheaded choices in delivery - and that's not even touching the inclusion of four interludes that all seem closer to capturing the atmosphere the rest of the record lacks - this was a misfire. Even if they were intending for camp, if Felix Hagan & The Family were doing that sound right, Diablo Swing Orchestra are doing it wrong. Now that being said, there are tones and grooves here that I can still support - I don't dislike this fusion of genres, and songs like 'Interruption', the moody simmer of 'Climbing The Eyewall', and the languid touches behind 'The Age Of Vulture Culture' are just enough to bump this to a light 5/10. But if you're expecting something of quality in the vein of their last three records, you're in for a disappointment, just warning you.

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