There’s a section in The Lord of the Rings that’s become infamous among devotees of J.R.R. Tolkien. In a novel that sets out to depict a world ravaged by millennia of war and which takes great pains to meticulously detail its various lineages, histories and hierarchies in a solemn and imperious register, fans generally don’t know what to make of the early passages (which Peter Jackson’s twelve hours of film quite pointedly ignore) dealing which Tom Bombadil. Upon leaving the Shire, the hobbit troupe run into a garishly dressed, irrepressibly jolly gentleman who communicates exclusively in song and wields inexplicable powers over the local dark wraiths of the forest. Issues of tone aside, these chapters are bemusing because Tom Bombadil seems to exist outside Tolkien’s lucidly realised cosmology; no explanation is given for what he is or how he got there, and he has no investment in or impact on the greater narrative. It’s like he’s an immigrant from a different story entirely, probably one written by C.S. Lewis, just popping his head into a neighbouring story for five minutes in curious and benignly mischievous spirits without consenting to be bound by its rules.
That’s sort of what Diablo Swing Orchestra (SWE) are like within the canon of heavy metal; an oddity representing good cheer and undeniable charm, created by a troupe of obviously skilled and learned musicians but with a playful spirit that suggests they’re not looking to leave a major impact on a genre that often gets off on its sense of self-importance. They’ve built their reputation on a sound which band-leader Daniel Håkansson refers to as “riot-opera”; at its base a hybridisation of 1930s-style swing music and modern metal, with occasional invocations of other unlikely genres both old-timey and bleeding-edge. If there are any reference points for these Swedes’ particular strain of avant-garde metal, then comparisons might be drawn with the aggressive eclecticism of Canada’s Unexpect or possibly even the Slovenian cult act Devil Doll, although Diablo Swing Orchestra lack the high-mindedness of either. Rather than deploying a maelstrom of instruments and stylistic influences to keep the listener off-balance like the aforementioned acts, Håkansson and crew just seem to be looking to provide a good time and a few laughs, and in that respect they succeed admirably.
Pandora’s Piñata, the group’s third outing, finds them mostly in familiar territory. Lively, noisy, instrumentally cluttered big-band metal is the meat and potatoes of the album, distorted guitars jostling for position with all manner of trumpets, violins, cellos, double basses, oboes, clarinets… no fewer than eighteen musicians are credited, ten session instrumentalists in addition to the eight permanent band members. The duo of opening tracks, Voodoo Mon Amour and Guerrilla Laments make a good manifesto for the band and the album, both featuring raucous, up-tempo ragtime rhythms and copious application of brassy, hooky choruses. Crowd-pleasers to the hilt, they’re an absolute joy to listen to; they actually sound like they might be appropriate for a high-concept musical number in an animated Disney movie (That sound you just heard? That was all of my credibility as a headbanger spontaneously imploding and catching fire).
Diablo Swing Orchestra are a band rooted in a gimmick, let there be no mistake about that, but they’re the good kind of gimmick band, which is to say, they seem to be motivated by a genuine understanding of and affection for the music they love to pastiche. Songs like Black Box Messiah and Honey Trap Aftermath are infectious and enticing irrespective of genre boundaries, propelled by drummer Petter Karlsson’s meaty, bouncy fills and the simultaneously energetic and seductive soprano styling of Annlouice Loegdlund (can I also mention how infinitely grateful I am to find a female soprano fronting a metal band who sounds like she actually has passion and individuality rather than being a fetishized automaton?). While generally content to settle into the swing groove, they’re not entirely one-trick ponies either, occasionally taking time out to broaden their palette a little. In the case of Pandora’s Piñata, this comes on the seventh track, Aurora, which fuses some of the opulent orchestration characteristic of latter-day Romantic composers like Holst and Grieg with slightly Spanish-flavoured acoustic guitar.
Unfortunately, as is so often the case with bands rooted in hybridisation, Pandora’s Piñata’s weakest moments come when the “metal” part of this “avant-garde metal” act is required to do the heavy lifting. The album’s two heaviest tracks – Exit Strategy of a Wrecking Ball and Mass Rapture – are also its weakest, leaning heavily on monotonous, downtuned rhythm guitar grooves that can hew a little uncomfortably close to sounding like Slipknot. Also lacking in big-band pizzazz is Kevlar Sweethearts, which sounds for all the world like the sort of filler track that might be used to pad out the running time of a Nightwish or Epica album.
So not every track’s a winner, but mostly, Pandora’s Piñata is just fun. It’s a frivolity, certainly, basically a cheeky, deliberately disingenuous “what-if” scenario, but it’s a frivolity conducted with wit, energy, and most importantly, good humour and a total lack of pretension, going about its business with a wink and a coy smile. It may not change your life, but if you find the often self-serious and humourless world of metal getting overbearing, look no further than Diablo Swing Orchestra for some light relief.
1 Voodoo Mon Amour
2 Guerrilla Laments
3 Kevlar Sweethearts
4 How to Organize a Lynch Mob
5 Black Box Messiah
6 Exit Strategy of a Wrecking Ball
8 Mass Rapture
9 Honey Trap Aftermath
10 Of Kali Ma Calibre
11 Justice for Saint Mary