The logical entry point to Diablo Swing Orchestra.
Diablo Swing Orchestra. Sing-Along Songs for the Damned & Delirious. “Exit Strategy of a Wrecking Ball.”
Even if you never hear a single note, these names, as just a few examples, should be an immediate indication that the eccentric Swedish band, now an octet, live in their own reality. As the name suggests, DSO play swing music combined with goth and Scandinavian metal elements thrown in. Their 2006 debut, The Butcher’s Ballroom, was exploratory, a record where singer, guitarist and primary songwriter Daniel Håkansson was feeling out what he wanted DSO to be. It was an interesting record, despite not being entirely coherent, and it included a song called “Pink Noise Waltz,” whose title might be the most accurate description of what DSO does. The band spent the next two records, 2009’s Sing Along Songs and 2012’s No. 3: Pandora’s Piñata, refining their sound for consistently improved results. Piñata’s “Black Box Messiah” even hinted at the band’s interest in conventional song structures and hook-y writing (relatively speaking, of course).
Which brings us to Pacifisticuffs, their first album in five years. Just about everything regarding the band’s sound has remained intact. If you’re already a fan of DSO, you’ll find much to enjoy: the slinky, metallic ballroom-filling absurdity throughout that’s augmented by strings; the obligatory baroque orchestral number; the requisite eerie interlude (three this time, none of which are essential); and over-the-top emotive vocals.
The one major change is the departure of vocalist Annlouice Lögdlund, who left in 2014 to pursue an opera career. Her replacement, pianist Kristin Evegård, offers a different counterpoint to her male counterparts, Håkansson and guitarist and vocalist Pontus Mantefors. Evegård’s mousey and playful delivery gels better with these songs, given that this album is the most conventional of the band’s career. Both “Knucklehugs (Arm Yourself with Love)” and “Jigsaw Hustle” (a 2014 single re-recorded here) suggest that DSO could be – or become – a pop band if they so desired. The former in particular offers its vaguely topical earworm hook as the first thing you hear: “Arm yourselves, brothers and sisters/ Arm yourselves with love/ Stand up straight, walk tall and proud/ Transcend and then rise above”. It’s the catchiest, the silliest and the most political song they’ve ever made. Similarly, the danceable and fluid “Jigsaw” imagines what the middle ground between the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones would sound like.
But Pacifisticuffs is mostly an introduction for Evegård. Her vocals dominate a large chunk of the proceedings, including the orchestral showcase “Ode to the Innocent” in which her voice withers and sways to mirror the gorgeous arrangement. Elsewhere, she has a blast as the star of the tumbling, brass-led “The Age of Vulture Culture” where she sings about “Fighting for a place to call our own,” a makeshift thesis for DSO if ever there was one. And she expertly presides over the challenging “Interruption,” a restless, late-album highlight that includes every genre the group has ever dipped its toe into as it progresses.
Still, Pacifisticuffs is probably is best seen as the logical entry point to Diablo Swing Orchestra. It’s their easiest to digest, and it’s there are no big departures. In fact, apart from the lack of operatic vocals, many of these songs could fit on previous LPs. DSO’s biggest asset is that they haven’t changed much over the years; they’re as weird and unique as ever. It’s also their biggest fault: how much mileage you get out of Pacifisticuffs (and their catalogue) depends purely on how much you enjoy what they already do. They don’t make liking or “getting” them easy. But then again, the band’s name probably gave that away.