Diablo Swing Orchestra – Swagger & Stroll Down the Rabbit Hole Review

This album is probably my most anticipated release of this year. To me, Diablo Swing Orchestra don’t simply play avant-garde metal—they are avant-garde metal, owing to the fact that they were my gateway into the genre with the incredible Pandora’s Piñata. And yet, Pacifisticuffs never really drew me in. I blamed the production at the time; something about the sound of the album kept me at arm’s length. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Diablo Swing Orchestra octet is a machine of creativity, talent, and ambition. However I may have felt about their previous release, a new album by them is a special occasion. Fortunately, their fifth full-length, Swagger & Stroll Down the Rabbit Hole, blew past my expectations within moments, leaving me dazed, confused, and ready to play it again.

Throughout Swagger & Stroll Down the Rabbit Hole, Diablo Swing Orchestra continuously subvert expectations, allowing no single genre or style to fully define their album. Opener “Sightseeing in the Apocalypse” uses simple, hopeful melodies carried by Daniel Håkansson’s earnest singing to set the stage for a very serious album. Then “War Painted Valentine” shows up, and it is manic, wild, and angry, with blaring trumpets, crazed percussion, and Kristin Evegård’s sly back-and-forth singing with the band’s backing vocalists. Oh, and a chicken. There’s a chicken too. Later, “Speed Dating an Arsonist” proves as silly as the title implies, dialing back on electric guitars entirely for an addictively-catchy swing anthem that Evegård owns completely. Jazzy piano meets flamenco guitar while, behind the drum kit, Johan Norbäck makes sure everybody is having a good time. A tap dancer’s dilemma this is not, but good luck singing along! Throughout the album, you can feel influences from jazz, gospel, theatre, film, folk, techno, and so much more. The songs on this album are so varied in style that they barely feel like they are being performed by the same band, let alone belong on the same album.

They are, though, and they do, and that is, in a nutshell, what makes Swagger & Stroll Down the Rabbit Hole so extraordinary. Whether in “The Sound of an Unconditional Surrender,” an orchestral piece, somber and haunting, that allows cellist Johannes Bergion to absolutely shine, or in “Malign Monologues,” a jazzy, joyful, and truly funny song, all of the trademarks of Diablo Swing Orchestra are present and accounted for. Håkansson’s smooth singing, the groove-laden guitar riffs, the outstanding performances on trumpet and trombone from Martin Isaksson and Daniel Hedin respectively, and the chameleon-like choral work that can shift styles on a dime—all of these classic aspects of the band are present and accounted for. Even as they expertly weave some of their zaniest new ideas into their unbelievably fun, beautifully serious, and totally unpredictable musical escapades.

The promotional material for this album mentions that Swagger & Stroll Down the Rabbit Hole spent half a year in production, and it shows. It would be so easy for an album with this much going on—not to mention one that spans thirteen tracks over an hour—to sound disjointed. By rights, it should sound disjointed. But producer Roberto Laghi brings his A-game here, giving everyone and everything, from Andy Johansson’s gravelly bass to the many, many effects coming off of Pontus Mantefors’s keyboards, breathing room and time to shine. The electric guitars, reminding much more of Pandora’s Piñata than Pacifisticuffs, are not always front and center, but always seem to fit in right where needed for heaviness and texture. From beginning to end, Swagger & Stroll Down the Rabbit Hole maintains an almost cinematic quality, often sounding ready-made for poignant film scenes (“Les Invulnéables”) or riotous musical theatre (“Snake Oil Baptism”). The flexible mix and clean production are exactly what this album needed.

My allotted word count is not high enough to do this album justice. Diablo Swing Orchestra are simply too ambitious, too creative, and too talented for me to capture what makes them special. Every time you think you have a handle on this album, it finds a new way to surprise, a new idea to pull, a new style to try. Confident, ambitious, and effortlessly fun, Swagger & Stroll Down the Rabbit Hole does little to dissuade me from my notion that Diablo Swing Orchestra are exactly what avant-garde metal ought to be. This album shows that they are still very much at the top of their game.

Rating: 4.5/5.0
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 256 kbps mp3
Label: Spinefarm & Candlelight Records
Website: facebook.com/diabloswingorchestra
Releases Worldwide: November 2nd, 2021

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