Somewhere on the outskirts of musical convention are outcasts that just straight up don’t care about norms and regulations. A lot of the best art is made from the bucking of trends and perceived rules of a given medium; music is no different. I may just have found my next favorite musical outcast in Sweden’s Diablo Swing Orchestra. What a name! They’re an octet, making them a veritable army of eclectic musicians, armed with an avant-garde spirit and something to prove. I’ll spend the next few hundred words trying to explain them as artists as is protocol, but I still maintain that they are beyond definition, as artistic outcasts usually are. With their latest album Pacifisticuffs, I’m reminded that there’s never a shortage of ideas in music, and that experimentation is without a doubt the vehicle by which this medium will transcend all other human-made art.
There is a lot going on here; listening to this album is reminiscent of Igorrr‘s wildly jarring Savage Sinusoid from earlier this year, which is an experience that should be an overload of the senses on paper, but works a lot better than it should in performance. Credit for that goes directly to the band and whoever the chief songwriters and producers are, because Pacifisticuffs is well-layered and lush, but never overwhelming or too busy to stay focused or risk losing the listener. It’s like watching a circus show made up of acts which all differ greatly from the others but are all still in service to the overall experience. In short, every element is groomed with surgical precision. We even get a fancy, unique genre descriptor for the music, courtesy of guitarist and occasional vocalist Daniel Håkansson: ‘riot-opera’.
And what a riot it is! Guitars, drums, cellos, banjos, bass, keyboards, trumpets, trombones, and impressive vocal performances all envelope the listener in a cacophony of swing, metal, classical, disco, and experimental rock. Album single “Knucklehugs (Arm Yourself With Love)” leads off strongly with powerful vocals from Håkansson that bring back memories of Eric Nally in Foxy Shazam. The rhythm of this song is so fun and danceable, it’s no wonder they made it a single, and the first track on the album no less. It’s a great first impression! “Superhero Jagganath” has a lovely, fun trumpet segment in the intro that leads into Kristin Evegård’s sweet, sultry vocals. Håkansson is no slouch, but Evegård’s voice commands this beautiful mess of an album while allowing room for operatic and choral performances to make songs feel larger than life. There’s also some nice harsh vocals provided by others that croak, growl and hiss from the shadows.
“Jigsaw Hustle” is a heart-pounding disco inferno of a song, containing an absolutely outstanding blending of elements. From the serene string section in the start it twists itself into a track fit for bell-bottoms and a dance floor, especially when the bouncy bass comes in. “Karma Bonfire” is probably the most straightforward swing track on the album with its horn-focused delivery, drum and bass rhythms that get your foot tapping, and catchy male group vocals that trade off with Evegård. Håkansson actually leads us off by singing ‘iron pipes, come let us dance, dance, dance!‘ And iron pipes indeed! He is belting this verse out as hard as he can muster the strength to, almost enough to harshen the mix.
The lyrical themes of these tracks seem straighforward, but the lyrics can walk the razor’s edge of absurdism. They use complex poetry to convey thoughts and feelings of love, the freedom of dreaming, a child’s innocence and much more. In a lot of music, the lyrics are the focus, and a singer’s voice merely the vessel by which those words are delivered to the listener. With Diablo Swing Orchestra, though, it’s as if the inverse is true. The lyrics are just an excuse for these wonderful vocalists to project their voices into our ears. This isn’t to say that the lyrics are meaningless and not worth the analysis, but Evegård, Håkansson and company could be singing about nearly anything and it would beckon for a sing-along, they are that infectious.
There’s only nine actual songs on this album, the other four being short interludes that break up the action every two or three tracks. This may seem excessive, especially for someone like me who’s notoriously picky with interludes (just make them intros or outros to other songs!), but they work decently enough as palate cleansers. As eclectic as the music is, a small break is welcome every now and then to realign your brain before getting beautifully slapped in the face by the next sonic setpiece. Plus, the whole of the album totals to around 44 minutes, which is just right.
I’m utterly enthralled by this album and its trailblazing spirit. It’s fun, daring and kinetic. Also, Kristin Evegård is one of my favorite new singers right now. If you appreciate challenging listens that are made more accessible by the blending of several different genres, masterful writing, impassioned performers, and a lot of heart, you need to hear this. To those that release their best-of lists before the year is actually over, I have a wrench to throw into your gears! Pacifisticuffs is a hell of a great time and shouldn’t be overlooked.
Notable Tracks: “Knucklehugs (Arm Yourself With Love)”; “Jigsaw Hustle”; “Karma Bonfire”
FFO: Unexpect, Akphaezya, and, uh…Mr. Bungle?