I don’t know how it’s possible not to appreciate Diablo Swing Orchestra, but I suppose we all have different circuitry, which provides our different or even non-existent tastes in music. This is their fourth album of jazz swing metal, laced so far with dramatic classical vocals, mariachi, headbanging double bass players and anything else they can throw in to make the experience unique, lively and fun.
All the elements are there on the first song “Knucklebugs Arm Yourself with Love”, yet it didn’t grab me. It’s strangely music hall and cheesy. Maybe the weight of expectation was too great, and of course the surprise factor was no longer there. “The Age of Vulture Culture” is more bouncy, with the lady telling her story theatrically against a mariachi-polka background. The flamboyant Latino instrumentals are simply irresistible. The female vocalist is different now. Although in the same style, I found the current one’s voice to be flatter than her predecessor. The eccentricity wasn’t there, at least by comparison with previous works. Why am I reminded of the intro to the Tavares’ “Whodunit?” This is nothing like it. Actually I think it’s the sense of impending drama. Our singer sounds like Kate Bush on “Superhero Jagganath”. This is more like it – a ticking beat but completely bananas and delightfully child-like in structure, and full of choral extravagance, pomp and colourful madness. That brought a smile. That’s more like it. And for good measure it’s followed by a few seconds of electronic weirdness.
The funky tempo comes out again on “Lady Clandestine Chainbreaker”. The lady singer once again reminds me of Kate Bush, reinforced by the choral style. The trumpet signals a spoken part, and now we’re into the pomp of a Latin dance. The metal rhythm guitar blends with the Latin-swing, before the trumpet takes over with a sad, funeral tune. With Diablo Swing Orchestra, I realise that it’s best absorbed without trying to work out what’s going on. And so a brief old style film intro gives away to the disco beat of “Jigsaw Hustle”. While I was thinking whether we were somewhere between Hawaii-Five-O and Mexico, the lady comes in sounding like Gloria Estefan. So it’s Miami Sound Machine time, Diablo Swing Orchestra style. The lady sings her song to the accompaniment of a pressing Latin beat, strings, mariachi and a kind of film score. I like the array of sounds but this was a bit lyrically clumsy for me, and the song ended in no man’s land.
“Ode to the Innocent” has an air of pathos about it. What’s missing compared to previous works is any sense of irony. The classical cello strains partly address this but it’s all too serious. This aura continues into the start of “Interruption”. But this song proves to be more flamboyant, swinging literally between a lively jazz-like rhythm and the vocal section, which sounds like it’s coming from a smoky nightclub before finally bursting out with colour and energy. “Cul de Sac Semantics”, a jazzed-up version of the Midsomer Murders theme tune, makes a brief interlude, then its pure old-fashioned jazz-swing time as “Karma Bonfire” at last provides the jitterbugging and good time fun element, which has been largely lacking so far. Moreover it sounds more natural. That’s more like it. The electric guitar makes a more substantial appearance, accompanying the orchestral sound of “Climbing the Eyewall” but once again it’s a quite a serious song, bringing us down from the rare euphoric heights of “Karma Bonfire”. The ending is eccentric, and who knows where the country-style guitar and the sound of sheep come from, but it’s no more than a cursory interjection.
Overall I am a bit disappointed. This is partly because the variety, experimentation and invention of previous albums have been reduced. It’s also because of the serious style. “Pacifisticuffs” is not as diverse as “Pandora’s Piñata” (2012) and I didn’t find it as catchy as earlier works. The manic jazz-trumpet passages and the avant-garde front in general are there, but with the exception of the stand-out “Superhero Jagganath” and “Karma Bonfire”, there’s too much emphasis on getting back to the vocal story. The main vocals themselves have a tendency to lack drama and fun. I read that the band had turned their sights outwards rather than inwards. I would say the opposite. Diablo Swing Orchestra are a unique band, and they certainly retain this quality but on “Pacifisticuffs” they seem to have created constraints for themselves to the detriment of the album’s usual anarchic freedom of expression.
(6.5/10 Andrew Doherty)