Thursday, December 7, 2017

Album Review: Diablo Swing Orchestra - Pacifisticuffs

As metal continues to spiral and expand, something we've talked a bit about is the lack of new areas and sounds left to be explored. In the basic configurations of guitars/bass/drums/keyboards, it feels as though so much has already been done that not much remains. That doesn't mean that bands can't find a unique way of approaching things, but it does mean that at some point, the only way to break out of an existing mold is to do things that are weird, simply for the sake of being weird. We've heard some of these bands alreay, the ones who eschew traditional songwriting norms by throwing together riffs and motifs that don't have any logical connection, but instead pinball back and forth just because its unexpected. Being weird is interesting on first glance, but I'm not sure if it works as a career arc. At a certain point, it becomes a gimmick, and every gimmick needs something tangible behind it, lest it turn into a cheap Halloween costume.

Diablo Swing Orchestra is not the weirdest band out there, but they fall into that category of musicians who throw caution to the wind in their songwriting. There isn't always a narrative through-line in their songs, let alone their albums. The moods can fluctuate so wildly from minute to minute that you certainly can't have your mind drift off, but it also makes you scratch your head at times.

"Knucklehugs" opens the album with all of that wrapped up in less than three minutes. There's an operatic type opening vocal line that segues into a stomping metal riff, and then later we get a bluegrass breakdown. Why? Honestly, I can't tell you. I don't see anything in the lyrical content that would drive such a shift in genre, but it happens anyway. I find the whole thing to be underdeveloped, as not only are the connective tissues missing, but each half of the song isn't given the time or attention to reach its conclusion. It thinks that pasting two mediocre ideas together will result in one good one, but that's not how musical math works.

"The Age Of Vulture Culture" is far better. It also doesn't like to stay in one place for too long, but the tonal shifts are consistent within a sonic universe, and the main melody the band returns to is far stronger. This is how such songwriting is able to work; with a strong anchor point for the tentacles to radiate from. Without that core, it's more akin to eating soup with a fork. It slips through your grasp, unsatisfying.

Really, your enjoyment of "Pacifisticuffs" will come down to how much leeway you're willing to give a band. I am a straight-forward listener. I like my music to have a point, and to not detour away from it without good reason. Throwing in doo-dads and how-do-you-dos is fine, so long as they are serving the song, and not the other way around. Diablo Swing Orchestra rides the line of good taste, as far as that goes. Most of the tracks on this album have good ideas at their core, but the wanderings distract me. When you have a great idea, it doesn't make any sense to me to distract from it by introducing something completely different. If they had chosen to make this album a kaleidoscope, with each song taking a completely different approach and sound, I think they could have done something both unique and interesting. But by throwing everything into every song, it's asking the listener to have too wide a musical appetite to enjoy them as a whole.

So this is where I tell you that I'm not really sure how to judge this album. Diablo Swing Orchestra is doing something that clashes with my understanding of music, but they also have some very good ideas. For more adventurous listeners, there's plenty here to enjoy. For me, I was left wanting an explanation for why the songs went the directions they did. For some, the journey is its own reward. For others, the destination is all that matters. In that analogy, I'm not sure I'm qualified to judge "Pacifisticuffs", since I'm on the other side of the ledger.

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