Back in ’12—when I was wearing an onion on my belt, as that was the fashion at the time—I encountered Diablo Swing Orchestra for the first time. These Swedish purveyors of the abstract and absurdly catchy had composed an album entitled Pandora’s Piñata that I downright loved. DSO went into hibernation after PP and resurfaced again with the news that their long-time vocalist AnnLouice Lögdlund was leaving the band. Lögdlund’s considerable lung capacity was replaced with Kristen Evegård, but unlike other band breakups when you lose a vocalist, DSO kept most of the rest of the band in place and produced a new album. 2017’s newest record is the wittily entitled Pacifisticuffs, which coming from Swedes is a great way of describing what appears to be the Swedish cultural state of nature.1
Pacifisticuffs gets started on weak footing with “Knucklehugs (Arm Yourself with Love),” a song that features a cringe-inducing “southern accent” and banjo, but improves. Similar to the band’s previous albums, Pacifisticuffs is a pastiche of different styles—ranging from bluegrass (“Knucklhugs” and “Porch of Perception”) to tango to ABBA-style schlager/disco (“Jigsaw Hustle”)—but the band manages to hold these things together with skill. DSO always manages to merge between styles with alacrity, demonstrating excellent musicianship and compositional flare. The record moves quickly, with 45 minutes pumping by, and no song passing the 5 minute mark. And it flows well—the dynamics of each song feed the next, making it an easy listen. They lead you by the hand through each mood and style, making it easy to follow and a roller coaster of feels and sounds.
Pacifisticuffs was recorded and mixed in Gothenburg at Top Floor and was delayed because of issues with the mix. I’m not entirely certain that it made it through to the other side of those issues. I was struck immediately by the fact that the recording is flat; almost claustrophobically brickwalled. After repeated listens, I’ve grown more accustomed to the sound, but it’s not good. This has the effect of undermining the dynamic nature of one of metal’s most interesting bands. As a octet, with 11 additional musicians, it is shocking that the majority of this record’s tracks are mastered to a bone crunching DR5. This matters, and it undermines some of the record’s charm.
But it’s tough to fuck up what Diablo Swing Orchestra does—I did just call them “one of metal’s most interesting bands” after all. Despite some initial reservations, I found what we all should have expected: Pacifisticuffs is witty, fun and well-written. And the album is not at all undermined by the other big change: the vocal stylings of Evegård. While she might be controversial for some die-hard fans, I think she offers a unique turn for the band. Her voice is small and sharp, more indie or jazzy than her predecessor. But while she’s not operatic, she doesn’t want for drama (see her performance on “Ode to the Innocent”)—instead drawing strongly on Kate Bush (“Interruption” quotes her directly). Bush’s influence gives Evegård a Tori Amos vibe, and when backed up by the band, it works well. The songs where she’s the center of attention are carried admirably.
The record also has a flow that holds everything together; moving from track-to-track like they’re part of a symphonic arrangement, rather than feeling like a ‘playlist’. All these elements combined—Evegård’s voice with the other 18 musicians involved—makes for a genuinely fun experience. While the not-quite-executed Americana and the production pull the album down compared to its predecessor, Pacifisticuffs is still a wild ride. “Superhero Jaggnath,” “Lady Clandestine Chainbreaker,” and “Interruption” are shining highlights, and despite initial hesitations I have just kept coming back. DSO is brilliant and idiosyncratic, and Pacifisticuffs just demonstrates that all again.